Washington, DC – The Senate overwhelmingly confirmed John Kerry as the next Secretary of State on Tuesday, voting to send him to Foggy Bottom as Hillary Clinton’s successor by a vote of 94-3. He is expected to be sworn as the nation’s top diplomat on Monday.
At his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Kerry echoed the Obama Administration’s position in support of a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue while reiterating the President’s commitment to preventing a nuclear-armed Iran.
“President Obama has stated again and again, he prefers a diplomatic resolution to this challenge, and I will work to give diplomacy every effort to succeed,” Kerry testified. “But no one should mistake our resolve to reduce the nuclear threat.”
Serving as the Chairman of the Foreign Relations committee since 2009, Kerry maintained a relatively low profile on Iran issues over much of his recent tenure. Many of the sanctions bills that dominated Capitol Hill’s approach to Iran in Obama’s first term were routed through the Senate Banking Committee instead of Foreign Relations, and Kerry made few public statements with regard to Iran policy.
However, in Obama’s first year in office, Kerry held a much more outspoken position in support of diplomacy, including a reported consideration to visit Tehran in an attempt to salvage Obama’s diplomatic initiative after the new talks stalled in December 2009. The idea was scuttled by the White House, and openly rejected by some Iranian officials, and the Administration pivoted to the sanctions track in early 2010.
Kerry was also bold in his defense of diplomacy as Obama took office and in his support for breaking with the Bush Administration’s policy of not engaging Iran directly. Kerry told the Financial Times in 2009, “The Bush administration [argument of] no enrichment was ridiculous,” and called it “bombastic diplomacy.” He stated in that interview that, because Iran is a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, “They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and to enrichment in that purpose.”
That view is one that has been endorsed by many experts in the nonproliferation community, who say the “zero-enrichment” demand is an unnecessary obstacle to resolving the nuclear issue, and instead urge for a deal to secure increased inspections and caps on Iran’s level of enrichment.
However, the question of whether to adopt an inspections-based solution regarding Iranian enrichment remains controversial in hawkish circles. Former Bush Administration official John Bolton, for instance, lashed in the Wall Street Journal this week against what he called a “disastrous U-turn” of the U.S. and its partners for signaling openness to an Iranian civilian enrichment under strict safeguards. Bolton, an outspoken opponent of diplomacy who has publicly advocated for military strikes against Iran, argued that the Senate missed its opportunity to press Kerry to reject any Iranian enrichment during his confirmation hearing.
For its part, the Obama Administration has signaled publicly in the past that it may be prepared to eventually accept an Iranian right to civilian enrichment under tighter inspections, and Iranian negotiators have continued to put the item at the top of their agenda in talks. In 2011, when Kerry’s predecessor Secretary Clinton was asked by the House Foreign Affairs Committee whether Iran was entitled to civilian enrichment under the nonproliferation treaty, she stated, “It has been our position that under very strict conditions Iran would, sometime in the future, having responded to the international community’s concerns and irreversibly shut down its nuclear weapons program, have such a right under IAEA inspections.”
The Senate itself has had a mixed record regarding the question of enrichment. The chamber has passed legislation endorsing military action to prevent Iran from obtaining “nuclear weapons capability,” which is regarded by some as shorthand for rejecting any Iranian enrichment. Additionally, the Senate has sent a series of letters to President Obama in the past year, endorsed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), setting a hard line for negotiations and conveying varying degrees of opposition to a diplomatic resolution that includes enrichment. The most recent letter, however, included slightly watered down language on this point–conveying that the Senators who signed it “remain very skeptical” of any deal allowing enrichment, but without stating outright opposition to such a resolution.
Senator Robert Menendez (D-NJ), who is set to replace Kerry as the Chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, helped champion those letters as well as a number of broad sanctions bills that have been signed into law. Regarded as a top Iran sanctions proponent on Capitol Hill, Menendez has clashed at times with the Administration regarding its Iran policy and sanctions enforcement.
Kerry, on the other hand, did not sign on to those letters or cosponsor the sanctions bills. Whether he is able to bring his old chamber into closer alignment with the Administration on Iran policy, or stand up against a Congressional push to nullify a possible deal if and when it comes time, remains an open question.