Washington • A Utahn nominated to be the U.S. ambassador to Iraq told senators on Wednesday that he understands the challenges in the Middle East and is well prepared to take on the job if he's confirmed.

Matt Tueller, a career diplomat who is serving as the United States’ top envoy to Yemen and has previously served as ambassador to Kuwait, said America’s role in Iraq is pivotal in a region under siege by the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) and with Iran’s provocations.

“Our relationship with Iraq remains a critical one for the national security interests of the United States, and if confirmed I will do my utmost to advance U.S. interests there,” Tueller testified. “However, let me stress from the outset that there will be no greater priority for me than the safety and security of all Americans residing in Iraq.”

Tueller is fluent in Arabic and has served in various roles in the Middle East and Northern Africa as well as London. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which heard Tueller’s testimony on Wednesday, is expected to vote later this month to send his nomination to the full Senate.

Tueller was a diplomat in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad during the war in Iraq and said he understands the importance of America’s engagement in the country.

“The next several years will be crucial for Iraq as it struggles to recover from the trauma of ISIS and continues to actively confront a persistent ISIS threat,” Tueller said. “We stand ready to help as a trusted and valued partner.”

Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, quizzed Tueller and another nominee on why America has such a heavy presence in the Middle East and in Yemen.

"Amongst our members and amongst the American people [questions are raised], ‘Why are we there? Why don’t we just leave? Why don’t we just get out of the Middle East and let the Sunnis and the Shias and the Iranians and the Saudis do it ... and we’ll just stand back in our hemisphere and just not worry about it.’”

“That's not a sentiment that I share,” Romney quickly clarified.

“We want to ensure that there are no terrorist groups that can arise in Yemen or use the territory there to mount attacks against us and friends and allies,” Tueller said, adding that much of the world's trade passes by Yemen by boat and the waterways need to be navigable.

It's also important, Tueller said, that America ensures Iran doesn't pose a threat to destabilize the region.

“Senator,” Tueller told Romney, “there is another important interest I think that as Americans we have and that is the humanitarian situation. We don't give into hopelessness. We don't give in to cynicism.”

Tueller would be one of the more high-profile ambassadors if confirmed. Jon Huntsman Jr., a former Utah governor, is also serving in a key administration spot as the U.S. ambassador to Russia.

Editor’s note: Paul Huntsman, the owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune, is a brother of Ambassador Huntsman.