Iran deal architect among veterans named for Biden State Department

Washington (AFP) –


The lead US negotiator of the Iran nuclear accord and a battle-tested hawk on Russia were named Saturday to top posts in President-elect Joe Biden's State Department, signaling a return to a more traditional, multilateral approach after Donald Trump's chaotic presidency.

Wendy Sherman, who brokered the Iran accord under Barack Obama and negotiated a nuclear deal with North Korea under Bill Clinton, was named as deputy secretary of state.

Victoria Nuland, a former career diplomat best known for her robust support for Ukrainian protesters seeking the ouster of a Russian-aligned president, was nominated undersecretary for political affairs -- the State Department's third-ranking post, in charge of day-to-day US diplomacy.

Biden said that the State Department nominees "have secured some of the most defining national security and diplomatic achievements in recent memory."

"I am confident that they will use their diplomatic experience and skill to restore America's global and moral leadership. America is back," Biden said in a statement.

The State Department team will work with secretary of state-designate Antony Blinken, whose confirmation hearing is scheduled for Tuesday, on the eve of Biden's inauguration.

"America at its best still has a greater capacity than any other country on Earth to mobilize others to meet the challenges of our time," Blinken said.

The optimism comes amid rising doubts about US leadership in Trump's waning days after his supporters ransacked the Capitol on January 6 to try to stop the ceremonial certification of Biden's victory.

In a sign of the Biden administration's priorities, veteran diplomat Uzra Zeya was named undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights -- a position that went vacant, except for officials in acting capacity, for Trump's full four years.

Among the most visible posts, the spokesperson for the State Department will be Ned Price, a CIA veteran who made waves in February 2017 when he said he could not in good conscience serve under Trump.

Price, a former spokesman for the National Security Council, is expected to resume daily televised briefings, a onetime fixture of US diplomacy that came to a halt under Trump.

- Shift in approach -

Under outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a staunch defender of Trump, the United States has aggressively challenged Iran and China, robustly backed Israel and toyed with improving ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, while also imposing sanctions on Moscow.

Sherman's nomination marks another clear sign that Biden wants to return to the accord under which Iran drastically slashed its nuclear program in exchange for promises of sanctions relief.

Trump exited the deal in 2018 and imposed sweeping sanctions in what many observers saw as an unsuccessful attempt to topple the Shiite clerical regime.

Sherman, in an unusually personal account of her intense negotiations in Vienna, spoke in 2018 about how the Iranians, in a familiar tactic, brought forward a new point of contention just as an agreement seemed ready.

She said that she was on the verge of crying and that the Iranians were stunned into silence and dropped their objections.

"That's when it clicked into place for me. When you bring values like authenticity, persistence and commitment to the negotiating table, both in work and personal life, you are enormously powerful," she wrote.

Sherman and Nuland both require Senate confirmation, which appears easier after Biden's Democratic Party won control of the upper chamber following runoff elections in Georgia.

Nuland, however, has faced opposition from some activists on the party's left. She served as an adviser to hawkish vice president Dick Cheney, although she was also a vociferous critic of Trump.

Nuland, in a conversation leaked in 2014 that was widely believed to have been recorded by Russia, is heard disparaging the European Union with an expletive as she sought firmer backing against Russia in Ukraine's crisis.

In an essay last year in Foreign Affairs, Nuland said that the next administration should pursue an "activist policy" to pressure Russia even while offering an open hand to Putin for improvements in the relationship -- although she was skeptical he would change.

"Such an approach would increase the costs of Putin's aggressive behavior, would keep democracies safer and may even lead the Russian people to question their own fatalism about the prospects for a better future," she wrote.