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Lew defends Obama's Iran deal ... and Treasury's overhaul of $10 bill

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew says that President Obama has the votes in Congress to sustain a veto, if Republicans try to block his nuclear agreement with Iran. Also, he says, Alexander Hamilton will retain a place on US currency.

Michael Bonfigli/Staff
Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew speaks with reporters at the St. Regis Hotel on July 29, 2015, in Washington.

Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew defended the Obama administration’s controversial deal designed to contain Iran’s nuclear-arms potential, saying it’s a “myth” that Iran will reap an economic windfall and that the deal will not tie America’s hands in sanctioning Iran over nonnuclear issues.

The agreement has “gotten stronger as we’ve gotten to the finish line,” Secretary Lew said, in comments made at a breakfast for reporters hosted by the Monitor on Wednesday. As an example, he cited the evolution of “snapback” provisions that could potentially reimpose nuclear-related sanctions “if Iran violates the agreement.”

Lew said he expects Democrats to give President Obama the votes needed to sustain a veto of a Republican rejection of the administration-brokered deal.

He also sought to dampen the impression that Iran will reap a huge and immediate economic “signing bonus” from the deal.

“On the Hill, there’s a deepening understanding that Iran does not have $150 billion to get,” he said. “They only have about $55 billion of assets overseas that are even theoretically assets that they can get access to.” In practical terms, even that amount cannot all be brought home, and Iran’s backlog of spending needs in the oil and gas sector alone exceeds $100 billion.

Lew’s remarks were part of a full-court press by the administration to sell Congress and the US public on a deal that Mr. Obama sees as a major national-security achievement. Although many nuclear security experts have endorsed the plan, Americans have plenty of skepticism over whether the agreement will reach its goal.

In a new CNN/ORC poll, 52 percent of Americans say Congress should vote to reject the deal, while 44 percent say lawmakers should approve it. Opinion is split along partisan lines, with Democrats supporting Obama and Republicans and independents opposing the agreement. 

Asked whether the nuclear accord would tie US hands in its policy toward Iran on other controversies, Lew again characterized the deal as protecting US interests.

“We’ve reserved all of our rights to impose sanctions based on acts of terrorism, based on human rights violations, and based on regional destabilization,” he said, referring to the use of existing tools or to potential new legislation by Congress.

But “we have to be clear about what we are doing,” that such steps would have to relate to nonnuclear issues, he said.

And he pledged continued effort to bring the international community together in efforts to stop “malign activities.”

On other issues, Lew said:

  • Puerto Rico needs to come up with an economic and fiscal reform plan to resolve a debt crisis and stem out-migration. The administration, he said, favors a Chapter 9 court proceeding rather than a “disorderly process.”
  • China’s recent stock market downturn hints at that nation’s difficult transition from heavy state control to a more market- and consumer-oriented economy. He said he hopes the roiling markets don’t shake leaders’ resolve to press forward with that transition.
  • The Obama administration is going to "continue to engage with Congress” to reform the overseas taxation of US businesses, with some proceeds going to a “meaningful” increase in domestic infrastructure investment.

On a lighter note, Lew said the Treasury has seen an “outpouring” of more than 1 million public comments – from tweets to handwritten letters – on its plan for redesigning the $10 bill to feature a woman.

Commenters have ranged from elementary school girls to former Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, who opined in favor of dumping the $20 bill's Andrew Jackson, rather than Alexander Hamilton, from America’s paper currency.

Lew’s response on Wednesday is that Hamilton will retain a place on US currency, that more details will come soon, and that changes to the $10 are just part of a broader overhaul of US bills. He said a common theme in the redesigns will be “democracy,” with images that go beyond buildings and faces.

“It has I think actually been a very interesting moment, where an awful lot of people have been paying attention both to our history and the things that are important to us,” Lew said.

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