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Biden’s pick for ambassador to Israel defends record on Iran

By Morgan Rimmer, Zachary Cohen and Natasha Bertrand, CNN

(CNN) — President Joe Biden’s pick for ambassador to Israel, former Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, defended his record related to the Iran nuclear deal during his confirmation hearing Wednesday and made clear that he believes the US is dealing with “an evil, malign government that funds its evil and malign activities first.”

Lew was grilled by Republican members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, particularly over questions related to his role in lifting sanctions against Iran as part of the 2015 nuclear deal. He was also pressed on whether the Biden administration can prevent Tehran from using funds returned by the US with the lifting of additional sanctions for malign activities.

Lew played a key role in the original Iranian nuclear deal in 2015, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fiercely opposed, saying it gives Iran a clear path to an atomic arsenal. Former President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018, a move that was supported by Israel.

Iran “is not a rational economic player” and will continue to prioritize funding its malign activities over providing humanitarian support for its own people – regardless of sanctions imposed by the US, Lew told lawmakers.

“It’s not a pure economic question. It’s a question of who are we dealing with,” Lew told Senate lawmakers when asked if there is any way for the Biden administration to guarantee Iran will only use additional funds returned with the lifting of sanctions only for humanitarian purposes.

“It’s not a tradeoff between guns and butter. Guns come first,” he said. “You are dealing with an evil, malign government that funds its evil and malign activities first.”

Lew also said that the vast majority of money returned to Iran with the lifting of sanctions is used for humanitarian purposes and any misappropriated funds “won’t change the thrust of what they do.”

“When Iran gets access to food and medicine for its people, that’s food and medicine it otherwise would not have. I can’t say that there’s no leakage,” Lew added.

“To the extent that there’s leakage, it won’t change the thrust of what they do. Sadly, supporting terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah – that’s not very expensive. … Under maximum pressure, (Iran) still was doing their malign activities,” Lew said.

Lew also said Wednesday he is “proud” of Biden for “taking the stand that he’s been taking” following the hospital blast in Gaza, referring to the president’s recent comments asserting he believes Israel was not behind the explosion as Hamas initially claimed.

“I’m proud to see President Biden taking the stand that he’s been taking. And even this morning, when I heard his comments on the horrible bombing of a hospital in Gaza, you know, he was not giving into disinformation. He was shooting straight in the fog of the moment. You don’t have perfect information. And he said, from everything he sees, it was not Israel that did it.”

Confirmation challenge

Prior to Wednesday’s hearing, some Republicans were already signaling that they may slow down consideration of Lew’s nomination on the Senate floor.

Several top GOP senators have expressed their concerns over Lew’s involvement in the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama administration, arguing that although it’s important to confirm a new ambassador as quickly as possible, given the conflict in the region, he may not be the right man for the job.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo, “I think we should have an ambassador in every country, it has to be the right person. In the case of Mr. Lew, I have real concerns that he has misled and lied to Congress in the past, in terms of some of the financial arrangements that were made under the Obama Administration.”

Another Republican on the panel, Sen. Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, told CNN, “We have to have his hearing, but I have some very serious concerns about him and his involvement with the Iran nuclear deal, a deal that in my opinion is giving nuclear weapons to Iran, facilitating that. So, we’ll have to see what he says in there and take it from there.”

While Lew only needs 51 votes to be confirmed, assuming his nomination is advanced by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, any one senator can slow the process down on the Senate floor. Senate Minority Whip John Thune, the no. 2 Republican in the Senate, told CNN’s Manu Raju on Monday there is “a lot of resistance” to Lew’s nomination.

Another top Republican in leadership, Sen. John Barrasso of Wyoming, told CNN on Tuesday that he believes one of his colleagues may place a hold to delay Lew’s confirmation. “I would expect so,” he said, though he would not say who he thinks would take that step.

Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican who has attacked Lew as an “Iran sympathizer who has no business being our ambassador,” indicated on Tuesday that he may block a speedy confirmation of Lew.

“Certainly Jack Lew will have to go through all the procedural steps that we go through for any random district judge or assistant administrator of the EPA,” he said. When asked if they would have unanimous consent to skip some of those steps, as the Senate often does, Cotton replied, “We’re not going to skip those for a soft-on-Iran ambassadorial nominee to Israel in the middle of a war with Iran’s proxies in Israel.”

Senate Democrats have pushed back, saying that Lew is qualified and that confirming a new ambassador to Israel should be one of their highest priorities.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin told reporters on Tuesday, “He’s highly qualified, he’s the right person for the right job, but we want to be most effective as possible in helping Israel to deal with the hostages, to deal with the humanitarian needs, to deal with normalization.”

The Maryland Democrat added, “We need a confirmed ambassador in Israel as soon as possible.”

However, Republicans remain unconvinced. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, a member of Senate GOP leadership, said that he is also “very troubled by some of what Sen. Cotton addressed in terms of his appeasement, and, frankly, the appeasement approach of the Biden administration and the Obama administration. Iran is still the number one state sponsor of terrorism.”

He continued, “Proxies, like Hezbollah and Hamas are determined to wipe Israel off the map. And they’ve pretty much circumvented sanctions, which were supposed to have been imposed by the Treasury Department under Jack Lew, and selling oil on the open market and relieving some of the pressure that was there to get them to stop their nuclear program.”

Iran is the main backer of terror groups Hamas, based in Gaza, and Hezbollah, based in Southern Lebanon.

Cotton argued that rejecting Lew will send a powerful signal.

“I know Democrats are saying that we need to confirm Jack Lew quickly to show our support for Israel. I would say it’s the exact opposite. We need to defeat Jack Lew’s nomination to show that we have a new approach to Iran,” he said in an interview on Fox News.

In a post on X, Republican Sen. Eric Schmitt of Missouri agreed.

“As Obama’s Treasury Secretary Jack Lew was a key figure in the disastrous Iran Nuclear Deal. Iran is the chief sponsor of Hamas. Jack Lew has no business being the US Ambassador to Israel,” Schmitt wrote.

This story has been updated with additional information.

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