This week, U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., the top Democrat on the U.S. House Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, pressed the Trump administration for answers on Middle Eastern policy.
During his time on Capitol Hill, Deutch has often worked with Republicans, particularly U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the Middle East and North Africa Subcommittee, on international issues, including supporting Israel. Deutch was only one of the most prominent Democrats to oppose then President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
At a U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, Deutch grilled U.S. Deputy Sec. of State John Sullivan on the Trump administration’s policies in the Middle East.
"I’d like to ask you about a few specific foreign policy topics to get an understanding of this administration’s position,” Deutch said. "First in the Middle East, we saw another brutal reminder of the challenges that Israel faces in its search for peace today when a terrorist killed three Israelis and seriously wounded others near to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, in Gaza, Hamas continues to hold the bodies of slain IDF soldiers and Israeli civilians as bargaining chips.
“Jason Greenblatt is currently in Israel continuing the administration's push towards peace, but for many of us we are still in the dark about what that looks like,” Deutch added. “Mr. Greenblatt said last week that, 'It is no secret our approach to these discussions departs from some of the usual orthodoxy – for after years of well-meaning attempts to negotiate an end to this conflict, we have all learned some valuable lessons. So I want to ask you, Mr. Deputy Secretary, what are those lessons that have been learned and what are the unorthodox approaches that you’re pursuing, and is it this administration’s intention to present its own peace plan?"
“As you know the White House’s Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative, and Senior Adviser to the President Jared Kushner have been deeply involved in negotiations between this administration and the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority,” Sullivan replied. “The president met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and the leadership of the Palestinian Authority last week. The president himself is personally committed to this process, as other presidents have been. I think the commitment of this administration is clear to the peace process. I would have to defer to Mr. Greenblatt on what he specifically meant with those comments. I would say that Secretary Tillerson, though, has been involved as well – he was with President Trump when the president visited Israel in June.”
“All of which we’re aware of,” Deutch said. “Can you tell us whether it’s the president’s intention or the administration’s intention to present its own peace plan?”
“I would have to defer to the White House on that one,” Sullivan answered.
Deutch then turned his attention to Iran and the nuclear deal.
“The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs said in July that, 'it appears that Iran is in compliance with the rules that were laid out in the JCPOA.' Now, there are very real flaws in the JCOPA, including the problematic sunset provisions,” Deutch said. “However, in order to lead an international effort against Iran’s ongoing support for terrorism, their support of Hezbollah militias in Syria, the development of their missile program, all of which are outside the terms of the JCOPA, we’re going to need the support of the international community and our allies and partners in Europe. Wouldn’t a decision not to certify compliance because of factors that are outside the JCPOA risk isolating us from our allies and making the job of combating Iran's malign activities in the region even more difficult?"
"Well the secretary has said as late as last week that Iran is in technical compliance with the JCOPA,” Sullivan replied. “He said as well however that Iran is in violation of the spirit of the JCPOA for all the malign activities that you just described. We’ve been in close consultation with our allies to address both those malign activities and the flaws in the JCPOA, including the sunset provisions. So the president will have a decision in October on whether to certify or not, but our work on Iran’s malign activities and trying to improve the terms of the JCPOA will continue."
Deutch also asked Sullivan about Robert Levinson, a Florida resident who worked for the FBI and DEA. In 2007, during a private investigation case in Iran involving cigarette smuggling, Levinson went missing. Back in 2013, the Associated Press ran a story insisting Levinson worked for the CIA. Deutch has been vocal in recent years in his calls for Levinson’s return and pushing Iran for information on his situation, including pushing resolutions through the House.
“My constituent Bob Levinson has been held by Iran for more than 10 years,” Deutch said. “The Levinsons were told that the UN General Assembly would be used as an opportunity to push forward Bob's case. Are you seeing any progress? And can you commit to us here that bringing Bob, and the other Americans being unjustly and cruelly held by Iran, will remain a priority for this administration?"
“The Levinson case is a priority for this administration as are all the other American hostages held worldwide,” Sullivan answered. “Just as a note, I have met and spoken with the Levinson family on multiple occasions. I have a picture on my desk of Bob Levinson, which reminds me every day that he’s our longest held hostage in Iran. And I have personal family experience with Americans being held hostage in Iran. This administration has no higher priority than bringing home all of those Americans, including Mr. Levinson. You have my word on that.”
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