Will the Actions of Biden’s Iran Team Match Its Words?

The ritual of nomination hearings at the beginning of every new presidency is an opportunity for the Senate to probe policy changes, test nominees’ mettle and, this is new: entertain obsequious apologias for intemperate tweets. But while forcing partisans to eat their words offers some fun for the schadenfreude lovers among us, a more useful exercise is to compare real life—what these nominees for important national security positions said when they were out of office—with nomination-speak—that heavily lawyered language designed to lull senators into a false sense of the national security. On Iran, the effort is edifying, and worrying.

The person most recently in the crosshairs is Colin Kahl, a former national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, deputy assistant to President Barack Obama and former deputy assistant secretary of defense. He has been nominated to be undersecretary of defense for policy, the third-ranking official in the Pentagon and a critical player in national security decision-making. A serious national security expert, Kahl, in addition to his longer form work, spent the Trump years as a caustic and eager Twitter commenter, quote-meister, and critic. Charlotte Lawson has documented his most egregious comments in this piece for The Dispatch, including complaints that the GOP was a “death cult” and the “party of ethnic cleansing.” 

A key architect of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—the Iran nuclear deal—Kahl has been clear about what he saw as the need to engage Iran for many years. And in return, he has earned financial support from some of Washington’s most ardent persophiles. After leaving Obama’s Pentagon in 2011, he penned a Washington Post piece arguing against an Israeli strike on Iran (which some thought was in the offing), comparing it to what in his view was a failed 1981 Israeli attack on Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor at Osirak. (Kahl is quite an outlier here; the Osirak operation is widely viewed as a courageous and successful preemptive strike.) In the course of negotiating with Tehran, Kahl was intent on affording Iran the benefit of the doubt in negotiations, arguing for a continued capacity to enrich uranium and a more limited uranium stockpile (but a stockpile nonetheless). He also insisted that the $100-plus billion JCPOA payoff would go “to butter” and not guns, a statement he has decided to temper in light of his nomination. But that’s not his only change of tune.

Kahl has consistently argued that those opposed to the JCPOA as it is want war with Iran. The thought that there might be an alternative to the flawed deal, he wrote, “is a dangerous delusion.” Team Trump believed it could “force Iran to accept a better deal—one that eliminates the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, dismantles a significant portion of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, ends Iranian support for terrorism and regional militancy, and addresses the regime’s systematic violation of human rights at home.” But, of course, “It won’t,” he explained. “Trump may hope to isolate Tehran, but it is Washington that finds itself largely alone.”

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