GOP opposition to the Iran deal is threatening to sink a Biden Pentagon nominee

President Joe Biden’s pick to be the third-highest civilian leader at the Pentagon is already facing a tough confirmation challenge a week before his hearing — and it’s mostly because he staunchly supports the Iran nuclear deal.

A spokesperson for Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the ranking member on the Senate Armed Services Committee, told me the lawmaker is concerned about Colin Kahl assuming the position of undersecretary of defense for policy. The person in that job oversees and develops how the Defense Department handles military threats from China, Russia, terrorist groups, and, yes, Iran.

However, the spokesperson added that “it’s still early in the process and there are still many steps before Sen. Inhofe makes a final decision.” When I asked if the senator would vote “no” if the confirmation vote were held today, the spokesperson reiterated that it’s “too early to say.” Politico was first to report Inhofe’s stance.

This whole situation is bigger than a lawmaker standing against the president’s nominee, though in a 50-50 Senate, any Republican opposition — especially from a prominent senator — spells trouble.

It’s really about how the 2015 Iran deal will be a perpetual source of tension between Republicans, some Democrats, and the White House for the next four years.

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Political fights over the Iran deal have already begun

Congressional sources say Inhofe is following through on his threat, made in a Foreign Policy op-ed this month, to make Biden nominees favorable to the Iran deal sweat their confirmations.

The president should “reconsider his nomination to senior national security positions of former Obama administration officials who were directly involved in negotiating the original Iran deal, as well as those who promoted it,” the senator wrote.

Kahl is the exact kind of person Inhofe was talking about.

As a top Middle East official at the Pentagon and Biden’s national security adviser during the Obama administration, Kahl helped shape the nuclear pact known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The deal, simply put, had the US lift sanctions on Iran in exchange for severe curbs on Tehran’s nuclear work.

Out of government, Kahl spent time blasting the Trump administration’s 2018 decision to withdraw from the agreement in pursuit of a maximum pressure policy toward Iran.

“This a dangerous delusion,” Kahl wrote in a 2018 Foreign Affairs article. The Trump administration believed they could “force Iran to accept a better deal—one that eliminates the JCPOA’s sunset clauses, dismantles a significant portion of Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, ends Iranian support for terrorism and regional militancy, and addresses the regime’s systematic violation of human rights at home.”

“It won’t,” Kahl continued. “Trump may hope to isolate Tehran, but it is Washington that finds itself largely alone.”

Kahl’s advocacy, and general Democratic support for the nuclear accord, has rankled Republicans for the past six years. Their overall view is that the Iran deal made Tehran stronger after sanctions were lifted, and that it did nothing to curtail the regime’s support for terrorist groups or its missile program.

In myriad conversations I’ve had, congressional Republicans cite these and other reasons for why they’re skeptical of Kahl’s nomination. (They also note Kahl was at the Pentagon serving in a key Middle East policy position when ISIS surged in Iraq in 2015, shortly after US troops left the country.)

But Democrats, including top members of the Biden administration, say the JCPOA was a targeted accord that put Iran’s nuclear work “in a box.” Only then, with the threat of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon off the table, could the US begin to try to convince Tehran to end the other aggressive aspects of its foreign policy.

The general belief was that the Biden administration would work quickly to rejoin the deal, especially since the president promised America’s reentry on his watch. But so far the US has been cagey in the process, holding firm that it won’t lift sanctions Trump reimposed until Iran stops enriching uranium beyond the pact’s caps.

Experts say that’s for two reasons. One is a clear-eyed assessment by Biden’s team that it can’t just lift financial penalties and hope Iran comes back into compliance with the accord, though they’re willing to talk to Tehran about a way forward. The other is that holding firm signals to Republicans that the Democrats in charge aren’t too eager to rejoin the agreement.

That underscores just how rancorous the policy debate over that issue remains and how the yawning gap between the two parties will continue to color America’s Iran policy in the years to come.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the Senate Armed Services Committee chair, told reporters on Wednesday that he’s “hopeful” Kahl can get through the confirmation process. “The committee hearing will be absolutely critical and crucial because he’ll have an opportunity to explain his positions, and then my colleagues will make a judgment.”

But that judgment won’t be about Kahl personally or his experience to do the job. It’ll be about what he represents.