Nomination Hearing: Sherman and McKeon

Nomination Hearing: Wendy Sherman, Nominee for Deputy Secretary of State; Brian McKeon, Nominee for Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources

March 4, 2021

Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

On Wednesday, March 3rd, 2021, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a full committee hearing on President Biden’s nominations of Wendy Sherman to be the Deputy Secretary of State and Brian McKeon to be the Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources. Topics covered in the hearing included Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, Cuba, Venezuela, the Nord Stream II pipeline, and increasing concerns with the Horn of Africa. More information on the hearing can be found here

ISSUES RAISED

Iran

Chairman Bob Menendez (D-NJ) asked if the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign on Iran caused economic consequences to Iran. He also asked if Iran is closer to crossing the nuclear threshold now than it was before or during the maximum pressure campaign. Sherman stated that this was accurate, that the campaign did have an economic impact on Iran, but its breakout time has never been shorter, nor has it done anything to stop nefarious action by Iran in the region. Menendez asked Sherman to elaborate on specifics for a “longer and stronger” Iran deal, noting that returning to the JCPOA is not sufficient, and stating his concern that a longer deal would not address any of the other areas of concerns, nor the existence of sunsets. Sherman stated that she did not know all the answers yet, being outside the administration prevents her from accessing intelligence or the administration’s thinking, stating that her insight has come from publicly available press reports about Iran’s domestic situation and President Biden’s actions. She stated that it will require careful deliberations with the Committee about how to sequence sanctions and their reprieve, what we expect from the Iranians, and consider what those in the JCPOA and in the broader negotiations are looking for.

Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) stated his concern about Iran’s malfeasant activities and stated the process the Obama administration pursued to enact the JCPOA was flawed, especially in how little information they shared with Congress. He asked Sherman to elaborate on what the process would be for any future agreement sought by the Biden administration. Sherman stated that both President Biden and Secretary Blinken have been clear in what they are looking for with Iran – a return to compliance with the JCPOA for compliance’s sake, which would in turn trigger a return to compliance by the US and would be the platform for a longer and broader agreement. She stated the Biden administration will be working with Congress and with allies and partners to address the non-nuclear concerns, like ballistic missile production, state sponsorship of terrorism, their arms sales, their human rights abuses, and their detention of American citizens. She stated that she does not know if the ultimate decision will be to seek an executive agreement or to go through. 

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) asked Sherman if she had met with any Iranian officials since January 2017.  Sherman stated she has met with Iranian officials since then, including foreign ministers and the Iran ambassador to the UN. She stated she was in contact with the then-Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs to inform them of the content of the meetings. She stated that in those meetings she would press her Iranian counterparts to not take actions that were against the JCPOA, and to advocate for the release of detained American citizens.

Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) stated his concern that the JCPOA, despite the nominal purpose of preventing Iran from ever achieving a nuclear weapon would instead prevent the acquisition of a nuclear weapon for a time, and asked Sherman what the purpose is in rejoining an agreement which does not dissuade Iran from ever seeking a nuclear weapon nor makes the price sufficiently high to prevent them from pursuing that course. Sherman stated that the Biden administration wants to create a deal that is longer and stronger, one that is part of a comprehensive strategy that deals with all elements of concern with Iran, including delivery systems for nuclear weapons. She stated that while she could get into the policy weeds about how the JCPOA did create the assurance Senator Romney was looking for, it is beside the point now because the geopolitics in the region have changed significantly in the past several years. She lauded the previous administration’s efforts on the Abraham Accords as a positive development that has significantly shifted the geopolitical layout in the region. She committed that consultations between State and the Committee will occur at the formation and takeoff of policy, not just at the landing.

Romney advocated for a careful study of the intelligence, if confirmed, on the state of Iran’s society, the health of their leadership, the state of their economy, and of public attitudes, stating that as the Biden administration begins its review of the US’s sanction regimes, it should consider if the maximum pressure sanctions against Iran have created leverage that would be undone by a gentler sanctions’ regime.

Saudi Arabia

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) stated his approval of the Biden administration’s release of the report on Jamal Khashoggi’s murder but stated there is frustration that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia may not be targeted by Magnitsky sanctions. He asked Sherman to elaborate on how best to advance US values with countries that we have strategic relations with. Sherman stated that the Biden administration and Secretary Blinken have been clear that they are recalibrating its relationship with Saudi Arabia. She highlighted the release of the Khashoggi report, as well as the end of sales of offensive weapons to the Saudis. She also stated the President Biden was clear with the King of Saudi Arabia that the US would not be silent on human rights, and that sanctions and blocked visas are possible tools to hold bad actors accountable. She stated that discussions between State and Congress on Magnitsky sanctions, as well as on the list of barred visas, would have to occur in nonpublic formats.

Cuba and Venezuela 

Rubio asked Sherman if the Trump administration policy to block business with entities controlled by the Cuban military, noting that in some cases with sending remittances to Cuba, certain banks controlled by the military skim 10% off the fund transfer. Sherman stated that she did not know the details of the policy well but stated that it was important for the US to support the Cuban people. She stated the best emissaries to promote freedom and democracy in Cuba is the American people, led by Cuban Americans, and stated she would work with the Senator on the issue.

Rubio asked Sherman if recognizing Juan Guaidó as the legitimate president of Venezuela was a mistake. Sherman stated it was not a mistake but stated she had hoped the US would have done more to bring allies and partners in the region and around the world together in support of Guaidó.

Afghanistan

Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) noted the recent release of the Afghanistan Study Group report that suggested slowing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and abandon the May 1st exit deadline, and asked for Sherman’s thoughts on the matter, given increased attacks against civil leaders and women. Sherman stated that Secretary Blinken believes diplomacy has to be at the core of a just and sustainable settlement in Afghanistan, that the role of troops is to prevent the recreation of Al Qaeda or a new safe haven for ISIS. She stated that there is a careful deliberation in the Biden administration and the Defense Department around the May 1st deadline. She noted her own experience working on women’s issues in Afghanistan with then-Secretary of State Albright. She committed that she would ensure women are included in everything she does at the State Department related to Afghanistan.

China

Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) asked Sherman to elaborate on how to balance the need to impose consequences on Beijing for its horrific actions in Xinjiang and its oppression in Hong Kong, while also cooperating in some areas like non-proliferation or climate change. Sherman stated that there will be three elements to the US-China relations; there will be competition, confrontation, and some cooperation. On competition, Sherman highlighted this would begin with domestic investment in infrastructure, in 5G, quantum computing and AI, and in jobs for Americans that will take them into the coming decades. She stated the US needs to confront China where it must, including in the South China Sea and on their human rights record. She stated she agreed with Secretary Blinken’s statements that China’s treatment of the Uighurs was genocide. She stated that on some small areas, like global health, there will need to be cooperation.

Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) asked Sherman what role she thinks China should play in partnering with the US to address the coup in Burma. Sherman noted that UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield is planning to use her platform to have a more serious discussion about Burma in the UN Security Council and will encourage China to urge the return of a democratically elected government and to end the military coup. She highlighted that this is also a top priority for Secretary Blinken.

AUMF

Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) criticized the reliance on decades-old AUMF by the executive branch over the past several administrations to undertake military operations without Congressional approval. He noted that President Biden’s airstrikes in Syria were quickly followed by Iran refusing an offer from the administration to meet for a no-preconditions discussion about what to do with the JCPOA. He stated that regardless of how prudent unilateral executive action may be, it can cause a chain of reactions and counter-reactions that result in something more serious, all without any congressional input.

Foreign Assistance

Senator Todd Young (R-IN) asked McKeon to elaborate on what he finds most concerning about how US foreign assistance is organized, noting that there are often duplicative efforts and overlapping responsibilities between USAID and other development finance organizations. 

McKeon stated that while the USAID administrator reports directly to the Secretary of State, in the past 20 years that relationship has been marked more by tension than collaboration. He stated that one of his first priorities will be to work with Ambassador Power, if both she and he are confirmed, to reset that dynamic. He stated that he would work with her to make sure development and assistance programs are properly aligned and not duplicative. He also stated that if confirmed he would use the Secretary of State’s position as chair of the board of the Millennium Challenge Corporation and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to ensure that everyone is rowing in the same direction, and all the programs are aligned with the President’s priorities.

Young asked if the DFC can be more focused on middle income countries that face more pressure from Russian and Chinese influence. McKeon noted that the DFC statute allows some exceptions for middle or higher-income countries in certain instances, but the primary focus is supposed to be on lower income countries.

Nord Stream II

Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) stated his concern that the Biden administration is sending mixed signals to Russia around the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, given a recent resumption of construction. He criticized the State Department for not fully identifying firms that worked on the pipeline for Congressionally mandated sanctions and criticized the recent round of sanctions the Biden administration levied on Russia for the poisoning of Navalny for not containing references to Nord Stream 2. He asked Sherman if she would move quickly to ensure the administration names and sanctions all entities engaged in pipelaying, certification, or insurance related to Nord Stream 2. Sherman stated she does not have the authority to make sanctions decisions unilaterally but committed to doing everything in her power to ensure Nord Stream 2 does not go forward. She stated the administration will move forward on everything it can legally do to stop the pipeline. 

Turkey & Syrian Kurds

Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) stated that ISIS still poses a potent threat to the US and its allies despite not controlling substantial territory, and asked Sherman if she would work to intervene between Turkey and the Syrian Kurds who have been key partners with the US against ISIS. Sherman stated that she understands Turkey’s concerns, but that she agrees that the Kurds have been immensely helpful partners, and that the US needs to work with Turkey to find a way for them to understand that partnership does not threaten them. Van Hollen stated his concern with Turkey’s purchase of the S-400 from Russia and reports of consideration of another round of S-400 purchases and advocated to Sherman that she discourage Turkey from pursuing this route.

Tigray

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) stated his concern with the deteriorating situation in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, noting that hundreds of civilians have been killed by Eritrean forces. He stated this is at the level of a major humanitarian crisis, with famine possibilities and violence affecting millions. He praised asked Sherman to elaborate on how best to engage the Prime Minister to cease hostilities and ensure humanitarian access.  Sherman highlighted that Secretary Blinken spoke with the Prime Minister yesterday, making it clear the US expects him to ensure humanitarian access, and that there would be consequences if he did not. She stated this should be followed up by diplomatic engagement in Ethiopia, to push for the withdrawal of Eritrean troops and ensure humanitarian access continues.