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

The president's nominees are speaking cautiously in confirmation hearings, so it's worth looking at their past actions.

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.”

Nomination Kahl and think-tank Kahl are two different birds. His brief opening statement mentioned neither Iran, the JCPOA, or nuclear proliferation. On Iranian attacks on U.S. forces: “When Iran takes actions against our own forces, we should defend ourselves and punch back,” Kahl said. The same person who believed American cash would be used by Tehran for “butter”—which he now allows could conceivably have gone to proxies that attacked Americans—never worried about the massive escalation of Iranian regional attacks in the immediate wake of its signing. But he was deeply concerned about just those things when they happened under Trump. Finally, Kahl insisted that sanctions must remain in place until Iran returns to full compliance with the JCPOA.

So which Colin Kahl will serve in the Pentagon if confirmed by the Senate? The one who was closeted with Iran’s most ardent lobbyists, consistently blasted harsher measures to contain Iran, and regularly accused the GOP of warmongering, or the mellow fellow who’s good with offing Iranian bad guys and maintaining maximum pressure sanctions until Tehran toes the JCPOA line? Perhaps he’s had a volte-face on Iran after a long career of arguing for accommodation, but it seems unlikely. Even more improbably, we are asked to believe he’s not alone.

While the new Kahl was on display before the Senate Armed Services Committee, a similar story was unfolding at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in connection with the nomination of Wendy Sherman, former senior State Department official and Obama’s lead negotiator with Iran for the JCPOA, to be deputy secretary of state. She proclaimed in her nomination hearing that Biden administration policy on Iran must “be decided on the merits of where we are today, not nostalgia for what might have been.” This is a new world, she confided to committee members: “The facts on the ground have changed, the geopolitics of the region have changed, and the way forward must similarly change.” Well, yes. But …

Almost four years ago, Sherman was in a different place. At a Q&A session, she told the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, “There are many here in the United States who still believe that the deal should be ended. It’s never been clear to me what they think the alternative is, because war is certainly not something anyone would look forward to, and maintaining sanctions is something that would not, I think, endure at this point.” Apparently, she now thinks there is an alternative to the deal she helped strike. But didn’t think there was one four years ago? What has changed?

Like Kahl, Sherman embraced Obama’s binary view of U.S. policy options on Iran: capitulation or war. Like Kahl, Sherman’s view of Iran’s agency in the Middle East is zero. After a horrifying 2018 attack documented to have been of Iranian origins against Gulf shipping and an unprecedented Iranian-backed Houthi drone attack on Saudi oil facilities, Sherman took to the New York Times to attack … Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. “Either the Trump administration is trying to goad Iran into war or a war could come by accident because of the administration’s reckless policies, but the prospect of the current tensions in the Middle East escalating into a serious conflict is now dangerously high.” Was Iran responsible? Sherman was agnostic: “Both incidents ratcheted up tensions as anonymous American officials in the press pointed to Iran as the perpetrator. Tehran has denied this.”

Sherman has also misrepresented the involvement of Iran’s neighbors in the JCPOA negotiations. Israeli and Gulf leaders have made clear they were deliberately barred from the secret talks. Indeed, sources in the United Arab Emirates tell me they learned of the negotiations by reading the Wall Street Journal. But in an event late last year, she continued to insist that the “fact is that the Gulf Arab states and Israel were incredibly engaged throughout the negotiating process. I met myself with the ambassadors from the Gulf Arab states and Jordan and others before and after every negotiating round. I met with Israel on a constant basis as well. And when we began the negotiations, the Gulf said, just make sure you only focus on nuclear issues because if you're going to discuss regional issues, we need to be in the room.” So which story is true? In the room, or total secret?

Who is the real Wendy Sherman? Even her most ardent admirers were wondering by the end of her hearing: “I hope this is just a confirmation tactic, but Sherman refuses to defend the Iran Deal she negotiated,” tweeted Joe Cirincione, the former president of Ploughshares, a group that funded fans of the regime in Iran and ardently supported the deal. “Is Biden folding?” he asked.

Even Antony Blinken, the well-respected and now-confirmed secretary of state, appears determined to lead lawmakers down the garden path on the question of the Biden administration’s intentions toward Iran. At least until his team is confirmed. During his hearing, he insisted the U.S. is "a long way" from returning to the Iran nuclear deal. Weeks later he underscored that, “Working with allies and partners, we will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran’s destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.” But wait, that’s not what he said a few years ago…

In a 2017 New York Times piece titled “Why the Iran nuclear deal must stand,” Blinken wrote that, “Given the effort that went into reaching the agreement and its complexity, it is highly unlikely the other signatories would support a renegotiation. Unless, that is, the administration offered ‘more for more’—for example, greater economic benefits to Iran in return for additional constraints on its nuclear program.” In similar pieces throughout the Trump years, Blinken insisted that the cash handed over to Iran was theirs in the first place (ignoring that it was used to fund terror and proliferation); that designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist group (it manages Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, Assad operations in Syria and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Units) was a mistake; and bizarrely persisted in the repeatedly discredited notion that the United States was capable of manipulating Iranian internal politics to boost support for “moderates.”

In conversations about Biden’s intentions on Iran, Blinken has confided that he intends to pursue a balanced policy, reiterating that there will be no concessions to Iran before it returns to full compliance with the JCPOA, and otherwise toeing a hard line. Oddly, however, his personnel choices reveal a completely different set of views about how to best manage the Iran problem. Robert Malley, named to be the special envoy to Iran, is not subject to Senate confirmation. He too has added small details to what would be required from Iran in return for sanctions relief, arguing for “a tactical détente whereby Iran fully restores its compliance with the nuclear deal, and ends its regional provocations, in return for a reprieve from the crushing impact of U.S. sanctions.” (Italics added.)

But even that slight improvement to the JCPOA is inconsistent with Malley’s long record. It was Malley (among others) who insisted the nuclear file be separated from missiles, terrorism, and human rights. Like his Biden administration colleagues, he opposed the terrorism designation of the IRGC, the killing of Qassem Suleimani, and has long held the view that the United States should be open to working with Iranian proxies like Hamas. Incredibly, Malley also made excuses for the Tehran regime during widespread anti-government protests in 2019 that resulted in about 1,500 Iranians being murdered. 

Nor does the choice of Richard Nephew to be Malley’s deputy assuage widely rehearsed fears about the implications of these personnel choices. Like all of the others likely to deal with an Iran rapprochement, Nephew is a firm believer in reactive Iran with no agenda of its own. Take this Twitter comment as a general reflection of that attitude: “Trump's May 2018 decision to walk away from the JCPOA not only irritated much of the world (especially as U.S. sanctions came thundering back into place), but also eliminated much of Iran's incentive to restrain its nuclear program.” Never mind that it should be Iran’s obligations under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty that restrain its nuclear program, rather than inducements from the United States and Europe. And is it even conceivable that the author of “The Mirage of Renegotiating the Iran Deal” is going to be game for renegotiating a better Iran deal as Team Biden suggests it will?

While the Senate confirmation process is ongoing, Biden’s senior-most national security officials have done their best to allay concerns about an Obama redux on Iran. But there are already straws in the wind that should suggest such promises are worth little: A mere week after insisting the administration is going slow, officials reached out to Tehran to restart talks. Then, plans at the International Atomic Energy Agency to censure Iran for violations of its commitments and refusal of access to nuclear sites were suddenly dropped. News seeped out that the United States was allowing the unfreezing of Iranian assets in Iraqi banks, and there have been reports (disputed) that the Biden administration gave the green light to the unfreezing of billions to pay Tehran to release a South Korean tanker taken hostage earlier in the year.

So, is the Biden administration taking a measured approach to rejoining the JCPOA? Are we really a “long way” from returning to the nuclear deal? Or is the group that negotiated the deal in the first place, the group that opposed stronger sanctions on Iran, opposed the Suleimani killing, waved off Iranian regional behavior, ridiculed Trump’s talk of negotiating a better deal with Iran, defended a crackdown by the regime on its own people and otherwise looked away as Iran sought to dominate the Middle East, actually preparing for a wide-open, all access negotiation for an Iran deal plus? Is what the U.S. Senate has heard in nominations hearings true? Or was all this sweet talk just, as Joe Cirincione hoped, a “confirmation tactic”? We’ll know soon enough.