Inside the Biden Administration’s Thinking on Israel

Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council John Kirby speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House October 12, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The White House is warning urgent military aid to Israel could face delays amid Republican infighting that has crippled the House of Representatives, leaving the chamber without a speaker and halting all legislative business.

In an interview with The Dispatch, John Kirby—President Joe Biden’s chief spokesman for national security matters—said Israel could require a fresh resupply of munitions from the United States in a matter of “weeks” as the Jewish state undertakes military operations to neutralize Hamas. Kirby said this auxiliary aid package requires congressional authorization, which is why House Republicans’ struggle to elect a speaker and get the chamber back to work is concerning the White House.

“The speakership is incredibly important because without a speaker of the House, you can’t bring new legislation to the floor, you can’t schedule votes, and of course, that’s what we’re going to need here,” Kirby said in a telephone interview late Friday. “Supplemental funding is going to require legislation, so obviously, a speaker’s important.”

Israel receives billions of dollars in U.S. aid annually. 

This financial and military assistance enjoys broad bipartisan support, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill appear ready to approve additional aid in the wake of last week’s Hamas attack that left more than 1,300 Israelis and more than two dozen Americans dead. But the House has been without a speaker since October 4, when a group of renegade Republicans forced a vote that stripped the gavel from Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California. 

Until Republicans can agree on new leadership for their narrow, four-seat majority and unlock the House, aid to Israel could be in limbo. The following is a transcript of The Dispatch’s conversation with Kirby about this and several issues related to the war in Israel, edited for length and clarity.

The Dispatch: Regarding the $6 billion in recently released funds for Iran—money Tehran earned from the sale of oil but that has been frozen in international accounts: Has the U.S. arranged for the money to continue to sit in the bank indefinitely?

John Kirby: We get lots of questions about this, and what I can tell you is that none of it has been spent or accessed by Iranian authorities, and we’re watching it very closely. We’re watching it extremely closely, but none of it has been spent or accessed.

The Dispatch: Has the administration taken any specific action? In other words, is it making sure the money cannot be accessed? We’ve been trying to cut through the different reports, including one from CBS News, that said the Biden administration has reached “a quiet understanding” with Qatar that Iran will continue to be blocked from accessing the $6 billion. Could you provide some clarity on that?

Kirby: It is important for people to remember that the money was never frozen. Even when it was in South Korea, it wasn’t frozen. It was put in account by the previous administration to be used for humanitarian purposes. Now, the Trump administration set up about a half a dozen of these accounts, and the South Korean account was the only one that was not touched for a variety of reasons, but it was never frozen. That’s not the [point] of these accounts. All we did was move it from South Korea where for some technical reasons, it couldn’t be accessed, to Qatar, where it can be accessed. But as I said, it has not been accessed and we absolutely have oversight over the degree to which it can be and for what purposes. And again, nothing has been touched out of that account.

The Dispatch: There is a piece of legislation that has been proposed in the United States Senate that would freeze this, that would force the U.S. to make sure Iran cannot access the money. At least a half a dozen or more Senate Democrats have signed onto this legislation, which has been sponsored by two Republicans. Does the administration have a position on this bill?

Kirby: We’re not going to comment on pending legislation. I do think that one thing is important for people to remember—and that is that the money, even if it had been accessed, it would not be available to the regime. They never get to touch it. Let’s say there was a request for, I don’t know, some food for the Iranian people, and the request would come through the account to Qatar. We would have oversight over that request. If it was approved, that money would be given to approved, free chosen vendors who we could rely on to go purchase that food, and then transport that food directly into Iran through humanitarian organizations for the benefit of the Iranian people. So the mullahs never get to touch it, even if it had been accessed. They would have no contact with it whatsoever, and they wouldn’t be the ultimate arbiter over how it gets dispersed.

The Dispatch: One more question about this. The argument from critics has been that being able to use these funds for humanitarian purposes allows the Iranian government to use other monies for malevolent purposes, something it might not otherwise be able to do. What’s the administration’s response? 

Kirby: The flaw in that argument is that the Iranian regime has always made these kinds of choices. They have been willing to let their people starve, they have been willing to let their people suffer from all manner of medical ailments, they have been willing to act not in good faith with their own agricultural production. It’s not as if the mullahs are sitting around before the $6 billion in the Qatari bank was placed there, sitting around thinking, “Should we spend this on weapons or should we choose to spend it on food?” They have chosen predominantly always to go with militarization and support for terrorist networks and other malevolent activities. So, the flaw in that argument, again, is that Iranians are sitting around making these sorts of moral choices. They are not. 

The other flaw in that argument is that we have been very aggressive in this administration at pushing back on Iran’s, as you put it, malevolent activities. In just two-and-a-half years in this administration, we’ve implemented more than 40 sanction regimes targeting 400 entities. Actually more than 400—300 of those in just this year alone, this particular year. And some of that is for support for terrorism, some of it is of course supporting Russia in their efforts to get drones into Ukraine, and also for their attacks on maritime shipping. So, the argument that this somehow frees Iran up to do bad things, they’ve been doing bad things under multiple administrations, and this administration has taken all of that very seriously.

The Dispatch: There have been conflicting reports about whether or not Iran was involved in what happened in Israel, the attack by Hamas on October 7. Does the administration know whether or not Iran was involved?

Kirby: Broadly speaking, Iran is complicit. Make no mistake about that. Without Iran, there would be no Hamas, no Hezbollah. Those two groups would not have the capabilities that they have. We know that. The resourcing, the training, the capabilities that they have provided Hamas, longstanding, again, over multiple administrations in the United States. And we are working our way through the intelligence picture and we just haven’t seen anything that tells us, with these specific attacks over the last weekend, that Iran was witting, directing, involved, or participating. Now again, we’re still working our way through that. All I can tell you is as we are speaking right now, we don’t have specific evidence that links them to those specific attacks.

The Dispatch: President Biden, since he took office, has been attempting to renegotiate the U.S. back into the Iran deal. Has there been any change in the administration’s posture vis-a-vis trying to negotiate some sort of agreement such that the U.S. is once again a party to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)? 

John Kirby: Those efforts have been moribund for many months. We are not involved in negotiations over their nuclear ambitions and we haven’t been for many months. And it wasn’t just because of the way they were treating innocent protesters. Even before that, we had decided that negotiations were not going to be fruitful because the Iranians were not coming into them in good faith. They kept larding it up with all kinds of qualifiers that had nothing to do with their nuclear program. And so, we decided long ago that it wasn’t going anywhere and it was a fruitless effort and we have long since stopped trying to get back into the JCPOA.

Now, having said that, the president still believes that our policy is and should be that Iran will never be allowed to achieve a nuclear weapon. And he still believes that a peaceful way—diplomatic way—to that outcome is always going to be the best outcome. But it’s not a productive effort, it’s not a line of effort that we are pursuing. And we also have to make sure that, because diplomacy is not getting us anywhere, we have other options available to us to make sure that they cannot achieve a nuclear weapons capability. And we have those options available to us as well.

The Dispatch: The president warned in his remarks, and he did it more than once, that any state or non-state actor that tries to take advantage of the October 7 attacks on Israel: “Don’t.” There have been Republican critics that have said he should have mentioned Iran, specifically, by name. Your response? Is there a reason Iran was not mentioned, specifically?

Kirby: Whenever you say any actor hostile to Israel, I think it’s pretty obvious the kinds of groups and nation states that fit in that category, and Iran is one of them. The president was crystal clear: Any actor, or any organization—anyone who is hostile to Israel that might want to take advantage of this situation should not do it. And of course, that includes Iran.

The Dispatch. Many Republicans have also said that the fact that the president had initially attempted to negotiate a way for the U.S. to become a party to the JCPOA amounted essentially to appeasement, or gave Iran the impression this president was soft on Tehran and did not have to worry about reprisals for engaging in malign activities. Your response? 

Kirby: I would respectfully ask them to take a look at the actual track record of policy from this administration. It’s hard to look at what we’ve done with respect to Iran and come away with that conclusion. I’ve already mentioned the sanctions regime. I won’t repeat that. We have increased our military posture in the Gulf, specifically more ships, more aircraft. Now, we have added a carrier strike group off the coast of Israel in the eastern Mediterranean designed to deter any would-be actor who might want to widen this conflict. We have pushed back very forcefully on Shia, Iran-backed militia group attacks on our troops in Iraq and Syria in such a robust fashion that attacks on our troops have all but ceased in Iraq and Syria because of the swift retaliatory strikes that we took the last time that they did that. So, I just find it difficult to believe when you look at the whole scope of what we’ve been doing, and it’s not just us, our allies and partners along with us, and say that we’ve somehow turned a blind eye or we’ve been weak on Iran. The math just doesn’t add up.

The Dispatch: Is Israel going to need a fresh aid package and has the administration yet decided whether or not it wants to tie that aid to aid to Ukraine and Taiwan, or whether they want a standalone package?

Kirby: You are correct that we are going to need some supplemental funding from Congress. We have existing appropriations and authorities right now to support Israel and Ukraine for the near term. But in the longer term, we’re going to need some support from Congress and some supplemental funding to do that for both countries. And we are in active discussions with Congress. As a matter of fact, as recently as today, updating members of Congress on the situation on the ground, particularly in Israel, but also about the supplemental requests that we’re going to be coming to them and asking them for. I’d rather not get into the details of what that’s going to look like right now, since we are in active discussions with members of Congress, and I want to respect that process. I would just tell you that it is very much an active piece of conversation we’re having with them.

The Dispatch: Can you describe what “near term” means? And does the lack of a speaker of the House at all get in the way of this?

John Kirby: Let me take the first question first: “Near term” is difficult for me to describe with more detail, and it’s not because I’m trying to be cagey with you. A lot of it depends on the expenditure rate, and how fast is Ukraine and how fast is Israel working through their munitions, the kinds of munitions that we’re helping provide them with. For instance, in Israel, it’s the interceptors for the Iron Dome Missile System. And in Ukraine, it’s everything from air defense capabilities to artillery rounds. Each fight is different, and each of our partners are going through these munitions at different rates, so it’s really hard for me to give you a date certain on the calendar. But I would say we’re running out of runway here. We’re probably talking weeks, but it’s difficult for me to tell you exactly how many weeks.

And then to your second question: Absolutely, the speakership is incredibly important because without a speaker of the House, you can’t bring new legislation to the floor, you can’t schedule votes, and of course, that’s what we’re going to need here: supplemental funding is going to require legislation, so obviously a speaker’s important. Now, the one thing that we should say and be honest about is that we’ve had incredible bipartisan support for both Ukraine and Israel in both chambers, and we expect that that support will continue. I know there’s a small group of Republicans in the House who are adamantly opposed to support for Ukraine, but they don’t speak for their caucus and they don’t speak, quite frankly, for their leadership. And so, we are confident that that bipartisan support will continue.

The Dispatch: I know the secretaries of defense and state have been to Israel. Does the president have any plans to visit soon, or does he have any plans to have Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit the White House soon? 

Kirby: No, nothing on the schedule to speak to right now. Obviously, the prime minister is quite busy—appropriately so. And I’m sure he feels like he absolutely, appropriately, needs to be home in this fight against Hamas. And with the secretary of state and secretary of defense just visiting, I don’t know that we’re going to burden the Israelis with a presidential visit at this time. But obviously, if that seems like the appropriate thing to do, we will certainly make the appropriate announcements. But nothing on the schedule right now.

The Dispatch: The president has been very supportive of Israel since October 7, especially on the matter of the Jewish state’s pending military operations. But from the standpoint of domestic and international politics, what tends to happen is that, inevitably, there are demands for Israel to deescalate. Should the country, and the world, expect the president to remain consistent should calls for deescalation materialize?

Kirby: The president has great affection and respect for Israel and for the Israeli people going all the way back to his time in the Senate. You’re not going to find an American political leader who loves Israel more than Joe Biden. And even in the very early conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he certainly talked in very strong terms about Israel’s right to defend itself, and the fact that they can count on American support. You heard that same message from the secretaries of State and Defense in just the last couple of days, and that message will continue. In those early conversations, he also talked about how Israel and the United States are always stronger together when we stand on our principles, when we reflect back on our shared values, and some of those shared values are respect for innocent human life, and a respect for the law of war and the law of armed conflicts. That was in the first conversation that he had with Prime Minister Netanyahu. And so, that’s a very active part of our conversations with our Israeli counterparts when we talk to him about how these operations are progressing. Both can be true, both can be important, and they both are.

The Dispatch: And finally, for people in various corners of the globe that might think that this is going to take the president’s attention away from what’s going on in Ukraine, is there a message for them?

Kirby: We are confident that we can continue to support both Ukraine and Israel. As a matter of fact, it’s imperative that we do. And you’ve heard that message from the president, and you’ll continue to hear that from him as well as other cabinet officials in this administration. But honestly, to go back to your previous question, in order for us to be able to do that, we really need congressional support. We are really going to need some legislation that gives us some supplemental funding to continue to support both these critical partners. And I know this is self-evident, but it’s worth restating: Both of these fights that these two partners of ours are in are really in our national security interest. In Ukraine, what happens if we just let Putin take all the whole country? If you think the cost of supporting Ukraine now is high, think about how much higher it’s going to be, not just in national treasure but in American blood, if he rolls right up to the eastern flank of NATO and then we’ve got Article 5 commitments we have to meet.

The same goes with Israel. A stable, secure, prosperous Middle East with an integrated Israel is good for our national security interests, from economics to diplomatics to even the security perspective. And what’s happening to Israel right now very much affects the region and the United States and our security. So, both of these are tied very much to the way Americans live here at home, and both these countries are fighting for something that should resonate with all of us. In Ukraine, it’s independence. We know what it’s like to fight for independence, and we needed foreign help to win our independence. And of course, in Israel, we all remember what 9/11 felt like. Well, that’s what it feels like in Israel. This is their version of 9/11. And I think, again, all Americans, no matter how you vote, no matter which way you look, can understand how important it is to help Israel beat back the threat of terrorism.

Click here for more coverage of the war in Israel.

Comments (40)
Join The Dispatch to participate in the comments.
Load More