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Republicans challenge Biden’s Pentagon policy nominee on Iran

  • March 05, 2021

Ernst was joined by Republican Sens. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who called Kahl’s comments “intemperate,” and Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, who said Kahl’s “inflammatory rhetoric” was “not representative of the way a top policy official at the Pentagon should write about policy.” All three have said they will vote against Kahl’s confirmation.  

Kahl, who previously served as national security adviser to Biden when he was vice president and who had a lead role in forming the 2015 nuclear deal, took a conciliatory tone during the hearing, at one point apologizing for what he called his “disrespectful” choice of words in the past.

His hearing follows Wednesday’s grilling of Wendy Sherman, the White House’s pick to become the State Department’s No. 2 official. Sherman previously served as the lead negotiator in the Obama administration’s talks with Iran — a role which likewise drew the scrutiny from hawkish senators.

Both Sherman and Kahl acknowledged during their hearings that Iran’s stance in the Middle East has changed since 2015 and that a pivot back to the deal, while necessary, would not be a panacea.

“I remain clear-eyed about the threat Iran poses to our interests and those of our allies,” Sherman said Wednesday.

Kahl on Thursday relied in part on his history of support for the United Staates’ strategic partnership with Israel, including collaboration on defense systems such as the Iron Dome.

“I think dynamics in the Middle East have changed. I support the Abraham Accords and I wouldn’t move the embassy … away from Jerusalem,” he said, also noting that he supports Israel’s airstrike campaign in Syria.

Pressed on Iran, the nominee acknowledged his past objections to the Trump administration’s killing of Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, but said he “did not shed a tear” over the spymaster’s death. “I was concerned about the escalatory dynamics,” Kahl said.

Kahl also leaned on his prior prediction that Iran would increase nuclear enrichment if the Trump administration abandoned the 2015 deal, but insisted the United States should not release Iran from sanctions for terrorism or humanitarian-related issues or on nuclear matters “until Iran is in complete compliance with its obligations under the JCPOA,” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

When pressed by Inhofe to say he would oppose lifting any sanctions on Iran as long as Tehran continues violent attacks in the region, Kahl said, “We need to get the nuclear program in a box.” He added, “As troubling as Iran’s behavior is — and it is very troubling — it would be exponentially more dangerous if Iran acquired a nuclear weapon.”

Kahl said that he does not believe sanctions should be lifted on Iran’s ballistic missile program, and that the Biden administration should work to reduce Tehran’s conventional stockpiles through diplomacy.

His support for the White House’s stated intent to “recalibrate” US relations with Saudi Arabia following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the catastrophic war in Yemen drew little objection among lawmakers.

Echoing the Biden administration on arms sales, Kahl said foreign transfers “need to be aligned not just with our national interests, but with our values.”

Despite substantial attention to Middle East policy during Thursday’s hearing, the Biden administration is seeking to focus US leverage elsewhere in the world.

Kahl on Thursday suggested the United States should prioritize the Indo-Pacific region, Europe and the Western Hemisphere in the coming years as China moves toward military modernization and Russia seeks to pick up influence abroad.

“I think we need to right-size our presence in the Middle East and Central Asia,” Kahl said. If confirmed, he will likely be in a position to recommend if, and how, that should be done.

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