Presses Secretary Blinken on Russia’s war in Ukraine, threat of China, and Iran nuclear deal
During a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing today reviewing the State Department’s budget, U.S. Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) pressed Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Russia’s war in Ukraine, the rising threat of China, and the state of Iran nuclear deal negotiations.
A transcript of Senator Romney’s exchange with Secretary Blinken can be found below the video.
Senator Romney: Mr. Secretary, it’s good to see you and appreciate your willingness to be here today and appreciate, in particular, your visit to Kyiv making clear to the people and the world our commitment to the people of Ukraine and to its leadership. This follows on the heels of what I and many others across the country had to feel was a disastrous departure from Afghanistan and obviously the diplomatic, and military, and human crisis continues. Stories of hundreds of people who worked for us in Afghanistan being murdered by the Taliban. Girls not being able to go to school. These things are obviously very troubling and I think I, and others, were apprehensive about how we would deal with Ukraine given how badly we had dealt with the situation in Afghanistan. Credit where credit is due: I think you and the Administration deserve a great deal of credit for how well we have acted—providing intelligence to our allies early on; collaborating with our allies to have a united front on sanctions; and our military support. I’m sure that looking back, there are things that we will say we didn’t get exactly right. But overall it has been a success so far and I want to compliment you on that. I think it was unfortunate that one of the headlines that came back from your trip was that our purpose was to diminish the Russian military capacity. That may be a byproduct, but our mission there is to help the people of Ukraine have freedom and sovereignty which they richly deserve. One of the great challenges that’s already been mentioned is with regards to China. You know that they have a comprehensive strategy. That China’s economic power is continuing to rise. Their military power, likewise. Their investments both in ICBMs over the coming years, in their Navy, and so forth is really daunting. They have attempted to pacify the world. They, of course, monitor and pacify their own citizenry and propagandize their own citizenry. One of the things that Chairman Menendez and I made part of the NDAA this last year was a provision requiring the Administration to develop a comprehensive strategy to deal with the emergence of China as a great power. And your department, along with other departments, will be tasked with that as soon as the National Security Strategy is released. And I just want to underscore how important that is and I do believe that we’re still not making the kind of progress strategically we would like to on that front. I was concerned with the report about the Solomon Islands entering into a military agreement with China. That is alarming. I wonder if you have perspective on that? Whether you know whether there’s a military component? It is a military agreement but will there be potentially a military presence in the Solomon Islands by the Chinese? What is your sense of that and is there a way of recovering?
Secretary Blinken: Thank you very much, Senator Romney. First, with regard to the strategy, we very much agree with you and I will have an opportunity, I think very soon, in the coming weeks, to speak publicly and in some detail about the strategy. We appreciate the work that, in many ways, Congress has done to give us some of the tools that we need to make that strategy effective. But I look forward to having an opportunity to lay that out in some detail and then continuing to refine it with you and others. With regards to the Solomon Islands, yes, we share the concern about this agreement. We sent a very high-level delegation to the Solomons just a few days ago. Our lead China expert at the White House, Kurt Campbell, along with the assistant secretary for the region, Dan Kritenbrink, lead a delegation to the Solomon Islands. I had previously announced, some months ago, that we intend to open an embassy there that we’re moving forward on. We want to have a day-in, day-out presence there. We’re moving forward on that. The delegation met with the Prime Minister. He vowed publicly, as well as privately, that there would be no Chinese military base, no long-term presence, no power projection capability. We will be watching that very, very closely in the weeks and months ahead.
Romney: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. I want to conclude in the brief time I have with indicating my support with the comments of Ranking Member Risch and Chairman Menendez with regards to Iran. I happen to believe that Iran will be hell-bent on having a nuclear weapon at some point, that they’ll negotiate and delay as long as they can in negotiations with us, but that they ultimately intend to have a nuclear capacity. I do hope that that’s not going to be the case, but I believe that in that circumstance, that giving in to them is not the right course but instead that there needs to be a very heavy price paid for them pursuing that path. And not only to help in some way to delay them or to sway them, but more importantly, perhaps, to dissuade anyone else in the world from taking a path to become a nuclear power because the cost of doing so would be demonstrated by what we do with Iran. I would encourage the Administration to once again bring this matter to Congress for an up-or-down vote, for a level of support in the part of the national interest. This is critical not just for what’s happening in Iran and the Middle East, but around the world as more and more nations are looking at becoming nuclear powers. I think they have to see that the cost is enormous for doing so and would hope that we don’t, in any way, lessen the cost in negotiations. I would be more than happy to hear that we walked away, Iran asks for more, more, more, and the answer is no. And that we need to show extraordinary backbone and make a solid commitment that America will not stand still as they or other nations seek to become nuclear powers.
Blinken: Thank you, Senator. To simply say that we share the same objective, which is to make sure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon. The question is what’s the most effective way to do that. We’ve now tested two propositions. One was the nuclear agreement that was originally reached and that significantly set back Iranian capabilities to pursue a nuclear weapon, particularly the fissile material for such a weapon. And that agreement was working by all objective accounts. In fact, now we have many Israeli colleagues from the security establishment who have come out and said publicly that it was a huge mistake to pull out of the agreement, because on his own terms preventing Iran from acquiring the fissile material necessary for weapon. It was succeeding. That doesn’t address the other concerns that you rightly and we rightly have with Iran, but on its terms, it was working. We’ve tested the other proposition, which was pulling out of the agreement, trying to exert more pressure, and we’ve also seen the result. The result has been that nuclear program, which had pushed back the break out time to a year in terms of being able to produce fissile material for a weapon—that’s now down to a matter of weeks. Their program is more sophisticated centrifuges spinning and greater stockpiled of fissile material. Ranking Member Risch was talking about this earlier. I think it’s important to underscore the reason the agreement originally reached focus on fissile material is because this is something we can see, and with the most intrusive inspections regime ever in arms control agreement, we can see it, and if there was break out, do something about it. The problem with focusing on weaponization is that we believe that they halted in the early 2000s, but could resume if there’s a decision to do so. The problem with that is that work happens in a room a tenth of the size of this one, at a computer, in ways that we or the Israelis may not be able to see immediately in real-time, may not be able to track. So hanging your hat on the peg of weaponization is a very risky one. That’s why this agreement was designed around fissile material, and we continue to believe that whatever the imperfections, if on its own terms, we can get back into the agreement, it would be, of all of the answers we have, the best one for the nuclear issue. However, we’re not there, and I could not agree with you more—first of all—on the overriding objective that we have and also with both the Chairman, the Ranking Member and you the need to confront Iran on its other malicious activities.