Former Treasury Secretary Jacob “Jack” Lew’s role in sanctions relief for Iran proved to be a key aspect Wednesday in his Senate confirmation hearing as the next U.S. ambassador to Israel. 

Several Republicans on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee pressed Lew, 68, on whether he misled Congress about allowing Iran to access the U.S. financial system as part of the Obama administration’s Iran nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

Intelligence officials suspect Iran of helping to finance and plan the Hamas terrorist attacks Oct. 7 that left 1,400 dead and as many as 250 held hostage. At least 31 Americans were killed and another 13 taken hostage, authorities said.

Here are four key takeaways from Lew’s appearance before the committee on the 11th day of the latest Israel-Hamas war. 

1. Pro-Palestinian Protesters Disrupt Hearing 

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Ben Cardin, D-Md., stressed that Lew’s confirmation as U.S. ambassador to Israel is urgent because of Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the Jewish state’s counteroffensive. 

Cardin said the United States needs a confirmed ambassador to Israel in place.

“Now is not the time to play political games. We need to make sure that other nations and terrorist groups … ,” Cardin said, before being interrupted by the shouting of a man who apparently supports Palestinians who live in the Gaza Strip.

“Now is not the time to play political games,” the protester said. “How many bombs must be dropped? Our families are dying. We need a cease-fire now. We need a cease-fire now. Cease-fire now. Cease-fire now. ”

Cardin finished his thought after security escorted the protester from the hearing room. 

“As I said, now is not the time to play political games,” the Maryland Democrat said. “We need to make sure that other nations and terrorist groups do not exploit the crisis and open new fronts in the conflict. We need to be clear with everyone. From Hezbollah in Lebanon to the regime in Iran, to Assad in Syria and even Putin in Russia. Don’t even think about joining or expanding the war.”

Next, Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, ranking member of the committee, opened his remarks.

“Eighteen years ago, Israel took the brave step of dismantling Israeli settlements in Gaza and … ,” Risch said, before being interrupted by a female protester. 

“Israel is committing genocide in Gaza,” she shouted. “And we’re funding it.” 

She went on to shout: “Eight hundred international human rights lawyers called on the United States to intervene to help stop the genocide in Gaza. Help!”

After security removed the woman, Risch finished his thought. 

“Eighteen years ago, Israel took the brave step of dismantling Israeli settlements in Gaza, handing the territory over to the Palestinian Authority,” the Idaho Republican said. “This good faith effort has been a disaster for the people of Gaza, and for Israel as well.”

2. Bill Hagerty: ‘Do You Know Rob Malley?’

Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb., asked Lew whether he expected Biden to rejoin the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal, which his predecessor, Donald Trump, exited. 

“I don’t think this is the moment for us to be negotiating with Iran,” Lew, an Orthodox Jew, told Ricketts. “I believe deeply that an agreement to not have nuclear weapons would be a good thing, but this is not the moment.”

Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., noted that when Trump’s “maximum pressure” sanctions against Iran were in place, “It was widely reported that Hamas and Hezbollah were going broke.”

Hagerty asked about Biden’s special envoy for Iran, Rob Malley, who advised the Obama administration on the nuclear deal and now is under FBI investigation for alleged ties to Iran. 

“Do you know, Rob Malley?” Hagerty asked. 

Lew replied haltingly: “I haven’t known. I have, yes, I’ve known him.”

Hagerty then asked: “Did he undertake efforts to quash sanctions enforcement on Iran?” 

Lew replied: “I do not recall Rob Malley having a role in the enforcement of sanctions.”

Hagerty then made his point.

“It’s clear to me that the Biden administration’s enforcement of sanctions against Iran is every bit as ineffective as the Biden administration’s enforcement of our border security,” the Tennessee Republican said. “Everything and everyone gets through, and the results have been deadly. I just want to say this.”

3. Ted Cruz Asks: ‘Safer or Less Safe?’

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, noted that Lew had told him in a meeting before the hearing that “nobody could have imagined” the severity of Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel.

“Many of us not only imagined, we predicted it,” Cruz said, referring to his opposition to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. 

“You were a critical player in the Obama administration’s campaign of appeasement with Iran, you played a pivotal role in flooding over $100 billion to the Iranian regime,” Cruz told Lew. “The Biden administration has continued that policy.”

Under the Iran nuclear deal, Resolution 2231 before the United Nations, the arms embargo on Iran ended Wednesday. That means economic sanctions were dropped against persons and entities connected with Iran’s nuclear and military infrastructure, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies

“As you know, today the U.N. arms embargo on Iran expires; today, ironically, the day of your hearing,” Cruz said to Lew. “Hamas used swarms of sophisticated drones in their Oct. 7 attack. Do you believe the world is safer today because of [Resolution] 2231 and the expiration of the arms embargo, allowing Iran now to sell ballistic missiles and long-range drones?”

Lew didn’t give a clear answer. 

“Senator, I think you’d have to agree that the history of the U.S. engagement on JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal] has changed substantially,” Lew said. 

Cruz then asked: “Are we safer today with no arms embargo?”

Lew responded that it’s complicated. 

“I think it’s much more complicated than that, because we’re not part of JCPOA,” Lew said. “Therefore, there was no extension of the arms embargo. I would have advocated for an extension of the arms embargo, and we might well have that in another way.” 

Cruz noted that the Biden administration also sent “hundreds of millions of dollars” in aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, but the money ended up in the hands of Hamas, which governs the area. 

“Was it a mistake to send hundreds of millions of dollars to Gaza that in a very real and practical way, funded the death squads and funded the rockets that are being used to murder Israelis?” the Texas Republican asked.  

Lew replied only that he wasn’t in the Biden administration, but that those funds were intended for humanitarian relief.

“Senator, I was not in government at the time these decisions were made, but my understanding is the funding that went to Gaza was for things like hospitals and humanitarian funding,” the nominee said. 

Cruz pressed, asking: “Is the world safer or less safe because hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on Gaza when it’s controlled by Hamas?”

Lew responded: “Hamas’ activities have proven how evil they are.”

4. Marco Rubio: ‘Misled Congress on What Was Happening’ 

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., talked about contradictions in what Lew told the Senate in 2015 about whether Iran would have access to the U.S. financial system under the nuclear deal, comparing what Lew said then to the findings of a Senate investigation in 2017.  

In July 2015, as treasury secretary, Lew told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, referring to the deal: “Iranian banks will not be able to clear U.S. dollars through New York, hold correspondent account relationships with U.S. financial institutions, or enter into financing arrangements with U.S. banks.” 

However, by February 2016, the Treasury Department had “granted a specific license that authorized a conversion of Iranian assets worth billions of U.S. dollars using the U.S. financial system,” according to a 2018 report by the investigative subcommittee of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

This Senate report said the Obama administration tried to help Iran use U.S. banks to convert $5.7 billion in Iranian assets. It also said the Office of Foreign Assets Control, an appendage of the Treasury Department that regulates U.S. law on economic sanctions, “encouraged two U.S. correspondent banks to convert the funds.” 

The report also pointed to State Department documents that said the Obama administration conducted “roadshows” across the world to encourage financial institutions to work with Iran.  

“The Treasury instituted about 200 roadshows that actually encouraged banks to convert these funds,” Rubio said, adding: 

The report found that at least one European regulator who attended one of these roadshows commented that foreign financial institutions felt political pressure to conduct business with Iran and Iranian companies and, in fact, the report also found that Treasury Department officials, while you were secretary of treasury, proactively contacted foreign financial institutions.

Rubio and then-Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., wrote in 2016 to Lew as treasury secretary, asking for details about Iran and financial interactions. Rubio said the Treasury Department provided misleading responses. 

“So how are we supposed to see all of that and then somehow confirm you to this very important post when you deliberately, in my view, misled me, misled Sen. Kirk, misled Congress on what was happening behind the scenes with regards to all of this?” Rubio asked.

Lew responded that he was sanctioned by Iran’s Islamist regime because it didn’t get what it wanted in access to the U.S. financial system.

“It’s important to distinguish between the technical details to facilitate implementation of JCPOA and, more broadly, welcoming Iran into the U.S. financial community,” Lew asserted. 

The nominee said banks and governments sought advice from the United States on working with Iran. 

“We told them what sanctions were lifted, what sanctions remained in place, and we told them to be careful,” Lew said. 

“The message that we were telling people [was] not to do business with them,” he said, referring to Iran. “That’s why they sanctioned me. That’s why I’ve been sanctioned for human rights violations in Iran, and I’m proud of it.” 

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