WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, enduring some nine grueling hours of questions at his nomination hearing Jan. 11, said the Trump administration’s top foreign policy priority would be to defeat the so-called Islamic State. Tillerson, the chairman and 41-year veteran of ExxonMobil, also suggested the Trump administration might be inclined to keep the Iran nuclear deal, while reviewing it to ensure strict compliance and enforcement, and may seek to negotiate a possible follow-on agreement to ensure Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon.

“There are competing priorities in this region … but they must not distract from our utmost mission of defeating ISIS,” Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in his prepared testimony.

“Because when everything is a priority, nothing is a priority,” Tillerson continued. “Defeating ISIS must be our foremost priority in the Middle East.”

Facing some of the toughest questions from Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., about his views on Russian foreign policy aggression and rights abuses, Tillerson demurred from agreeing to characterize Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal, while saying the United States should have behaved more assertively when Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

"Is Vladimir Putin a war criminal?" Rubio asked.

"I would not use that term," Tillerson responded.

After another exchange with Rubio about women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, Tillerson tried to explain that he supported the same values as Rubio, but saw merit in taking a less heavy-handed approach in pursuing them in other nations.

"There seems to be some misunderstanding," Tillerson told Rubio. “I share the same values that you share."

“There is change underway in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. … It is moving in the direction that we want it to move,” Tillerson said. “What I would not want to do is take some precipitous action that [might cause them to] interrupt … making … that progress.”

Portraying himself as a clear-eyed realist and former engineer who looks at the facts, Tillerson expressed skepticism at US-driven regime change efforts, and said he considered it would be his job as the nation’s top diplomat to develop the options to avoid the need for that...

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