Blinken tells House panel to expect firmness toward Iran, China

New secretary of State heading to Alaska next week to meet with high-level Chinese officials

 U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for U.S. foreign policy on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on the Biden administration's priorities for U.S. foreign policy on Wednesday. (Getty Images)
Posted March 10, 2021 at 6:23pm

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday signaled the Biden administration was taking a tough diplomatic posture as it prepares for sensitive discussions with Iran and China on nuclear and human rights issues.

In testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee — his first public congressional appearance since being confirmed as secretary — Blinken said the administration was not going to make any initial “concessions” to Iran as it seeks to restore some semblance of the 2015 multinational nuclear accord, nor was it offering a “strategic dialogue” to China unless Beijing showed progress on issues the United States cares about.

Blinken alternatively pleased and flummoxed committee members with his willingness to answer their questions with succinct affirmative or negative responses, as opposed to the equivocating and filibustering that is common among administration officials of both parties when they testify before the Hill.

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Blinken told Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., bluntly that the United States was not going to make any unspecified concessions to Iran to induce it to return to compliance with the nuclear accord, which former President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018.

The Biden administration has accepted an invitation by the European Union to facilitate discussion among Iran, the United States and the other countries that negotiated the original accord — France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China. Iran has yet to accept that invitation.

“I think the ball is in their court to see if they are serious about engaging or not,” Blinken said.

When the agreement was working, Iran’s so-called breakout time for producing enough fissile material to fuel a nuclear warhead was more than one year. Since Tehran began reducing its compliance by doing things like resuming uranium enrichment to certain levels, that breakout time has fallen to between three and four months, Blinken said.

Tehran contends the United States was the first to violate the agreement by reimposing nuclear-related sanctions while Iran remained in compliance with the accord. Therefore, Iran argues, Washington should go first in returning to compliance with the deal by lifting nuclear-related and other sanctions imposed by Trump. The Biden administration has suggested it will only return to compliance with the deal in tandem with Iran or even after Iran does.

The Biden administration has said it wants to first see a full return to compliance with the terms of the original nuclear deal and to then use that as a “platform,” according to Blinken, for building a “longer and stronger” follow-on agreement that would presumably extend timelines for when Tehran would be allowed to conduct weapons-relevant nuclear activities that the agreement currently prohibits.

The most important nuclear restrictions on Iran — a prohibition on enriching uranium above 3.67 percent and a cap of 300 kilograms on its allowable enriched uranium stockpile — do not expire until 2030, Blinken observed. “Those are the most critical ones when it comes to Iran’s breakout time,” he said.

But the secretary did not shed any light on the administration’s negotiating strategy for engaging with Iran on other aspects of policy, including its ballistic missile work and support for regional militant groups that attack U.S. partners and allies as well as deployed U.S. forces.

“We have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program,” said Blinken, a longtime foreign policy adviser to President Joe Biden. “An Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the threshold capacity to have one is an Iran that is likely to act with even greater impunity when it comes to those things.”

First China meeting on the horizon

On China, Blinken told lawmakers he would take a tough and firm line when he meets next week in Anchorage, Alaska, with Beijing’s top foreign policy officials: Yang Jiechi, director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and State Councilor Wang Yi. Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan will also participate in the meeting.

“This is an important opportunity for us to lay out, in very frank terms, the many concerns we have with Beijing’s actions and behavior that are challenging the security and prosperity of the United States and our partners and allies,” Blinken said.

Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., who voted to block the election certification of Biden as president in January, asked Blinken if he was “contemplating concessions to the Chinese Communist Party vis-a-vis the Paris Climate Accord or anything else that we might need to know about.”

“No,” Blinken responded twice to Perry’s continued prodding.

Blinken, who held senior diplomatic positions including deputy secretary of State in the Obama administration, said he and Sullivan would use the Alaska meeting to “explore whether there are avenues for cooperation” with China. But if the meeting is not productive, Blinken suggested the administration is not interested in more talks for talks’ sake.

“There is no intent at this point for a series of follow-on engagements,” he said, adding that for further high-level engagements to occur, Beijing would need to make “tangible progress” on issues important to Washington.

Those issues include China’s economic trade practices; its anti-democratic crackdown on Hong Kong; its threats against Taiwan; and its brutal treatment of the Uyghurs, an ethnic minority in the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang, which the Biden State Department says constitutes genocide.