Biden's pick for Israel envoy faces tough questions from senators on Iran

Key Points
  • Jacob Lew, President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Israel, faced criticism from GOP senators during his Wednesday nomination hearing.
  • Lew was accused by Republicans of being too lenient toward Iran as former President Barack Obama's treasury secretary.
  • Senate Democrats said Lew was being judged for working with their party.
Former U.S. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be the next U.S. ambassador to Israel, on Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C., on Oct. 18, 2023.
Leah Millis | Reuters

WASHINGTON — Jacob Lew, President Joe Biden's nominee for ambassador to Israel, defended his handling of Iran policy in the Obama administration on Wednesday at his Senate confirmation hearing.

"This whole thing is about Iran," said Sen. James Risch, R-Idaho, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "And holding hands with Iran under the table doesn't work for me."

As Treasury secretary under former President Barack Obama, Lew played a key role in formulating the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The deal, which was later abandoned under former President Donald Trump, provided Iran with a path to sanctions relief, in exchange for opening its nuclear program to inspectors and abandoning plans to build a nuclear weapon.

Lew was unequivocal, telling the senators, "Iran is a threat to regional stability and to Israel's existence." He also delivered a warning, saying, "anyone who's thinking of taking advantage of the current crisis: don't."

The Israel-Hamas war permeated the hearing. Early on, three protesters in the crowd tried to disrupt it and were escorted out. One protester yelled, "ceasefire now!"

Lew spoke warmly of the U.S.-Israel relationship, calling it, "the core of who I am, and what I believe is important for us."

But it was the nuclear deal that drew the lion's share of the Republican critique of Lew, especially its condition that Iran be allowed access to some frozen funds.

Several Republicans suggested that Lew had effectively opened the door to grant Iran access to the mainstream banking system.

"We did not welcome (Iran) back into the U.S. financial system," Lew said.

He went on to describe how Iranian officials "complained that my actions were what kept them from getting full access to the world financial system," and imposed Iranian sanctions against Lew in retaliation.

If he were confirmed, Lew said, he would uphold Biden's commitment to deny Iran a nuclear weapon.

The committee is scheduled to vote on Lew's confirmation next week and he is ultimately expected to be confirmed by the full Senate, albeit on Democratic votes alone.

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