As the Presidential Election Approaches, Washington Shifts Focus to Iran

With just over 40 days remaining until the November 3rd presidential election, President Donald Trump is planning to use foreign policy accomplishments to bolster an argument for reelection that could have impact beyond his already confirmed base of supporters. The president’s reelection campaign team already has plans to tout the signing of the “Abraham Accords” between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). And the administration is hoping—and in the case of Sudan, essentially extorting—that other Arab states would announce normalization agreements in the coming weeks.

But the Trump Administration has also decided this week that it should further accelerate its pressure campaign against Iran. While anti-Iran policies do not motivate some segments of the electorate as much as a demonstrably beneficial pro-Israel policy, the officials around Trump no doubt believe that a hard-line approach toward Tehran in the runup to November could sway some voters to cast their ballots for another four-year term. Perhaps more importantly, the Trump Administration and its supporters in Congress believe that now is the time to place even greater pressure on Iran; their goal is to sully US-Iranian relations so badly that a potential Joe Biden administration would not be able to negotiate any kind of deal that might benefit Tehran economically and diplomatically.

The effort kicked off in earnest when administration officials announced a spate of new sanctions. They targeted dozens of Iranians with ties to the country’s intelligence ministry for threatening cybersecurity as well as over two dozen more with ties to Tehran’s nuclear, missile, and conventional arms programs. They also announced that they had invoked the “snapback” mechanism, ostensibly reimposing all UN sanctions on Iran, including the arms embargo that is set to expire in October. Senate Republicans were on board with the effort, with Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Ted Cruz (Texas) spearheading a letter before the moves urging the administration to impose sanctions on the entirety of Iran’s banking sector. Senator Cruz perhaps described the efforts best, clearly defining them as ones that would finally and definitively end the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, the Iran nuclear deal.)

It was not just Republicans pummeling the hope of any future US-Iranian diplomatic engagement. Congressional Democrats criticized the Iranian regime in letters and at a rally organized by Iranian dissidents whose organization was once considered a terrorist organization by the United States. Much of the criticism is undoubtedly warranted, but in tying itself to the Trump Administration’s brazen violation of negotiated international diplomatic agreements, these actions ill prepare the Democratic Party to start a potential Biden Administration with much goodwill to trade on. It also raises questions about whether a Democratic-controlled House and/or Senate would hamper Biden’s future negotiations with Iran.

There is much uncertainty about what will happen between now and November, however. The United Nations and permanent members of the UN Security Council have called the snapback effort illegitimate, with the UN Secretary-General saying it cannot be acted upon. In addition, Tehran has seemingly offered an off-ramp for the Trump Administration, perhaps de-escalating tensions through a prisoner swap with Washington. But one recent development has raised alarms in some circles, prompting fears that the administration would stoop to new lows to poison US-Iran relations. An anonymous US official told the press that the United States has assessed that Iran could obtain enough nuclear fissile material to create a weapon in less than one year. This unsubstantiated claim is a huge leap and it primes at least some in Washington to accept justification for military action against Tehran. After all, the claim echoes the warnings about weapons of mass destruction, put forth by the George W. Bush Administration, which eventually persuaded a majority of Washington’s lawmakers to approve the invasion of Iraq.

The Trump Administration is unpredictable in almost every aspect except regarding Iran: it is eager to destroy US-Iran relations to a point that they cannot be rehabilitated under a potential Biden administration. As the November election approaches, many are on edge, wondering if there will be some kind of “October surprise” that exacerbates tensions and risks conflict with Iran.

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Supporting and Congratulating UAE, Bahrain Normalization with Israel. Bipartisan groups in both the House and the Senate introduced legislation this week to congratulate, and express support for, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for their decisions to sign normalization agreements with Israel. In addition, both resolutions urge other Muslim and Arab countries to follow suit; the two also express support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. The House resolution further reaffirms lawmakers’ support for Israel’s qualitative military edge, indicating that members of Congress intend to keep an eye on any possible deal through which the UAE secures access to the F-35 fighter jet. The Trump Administration is reportedly seeking to conclude such a deal by December, but it is still unclear whether lawmakers will support the move.

Resolution to Stop Rewarding Terrorists. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) introduced H. Res. 1131, a resolution he says is intended to push for a stop to rewarding terrorists. It condemns a 1996 Jerusalem bus bombing that killed New Jersey resident Sarah Duker and two other American citizens. In the resolution, Gottheimer recycles misleading statistics about Palestinian Authority social safety net support to Palestinians who are arrested, detained, or imprisoned by Israel, characterizing that financial support as “martyr payments” that incentivize violent attacks on Israelis. The resolution also reaffirms support for fully enforcing the Taylor Force Act.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Congressional Democrats Want Administration to Reverse Yemen Aid Freeze. Over 50 House Democrats reportedly signed onto a letter sent to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling on the administration to reverse its freeze of roughly $73 million in aid to Yemen. In March, the administration announced it would not provide that aid to areas of Yemen controlled by the Houthi rebels due to concerns about the group’s management of the funds. However, millions of destitute Yemenis live under Houthi rule and, in the wake of the aid cut, conditions have grown worse, exacerbating what has been described as the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. In addition to the House letter, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) is crafting a companion letter that is expected to garner support from the Democratic caucus, but without Republican support.

Rep. Omar Raises Concerns about Deportation of Somali Nationals. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) joined with immigration lawyers this week to sound the alarm about Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s decision to deport dozens of Somali nationals to Mogadishu while at least one of the individuals displays symptoms of COVID-19. Omar, who fled conflict in Somalia at a young age, asserted that the planned deportation posed a risk to all other detainees on the flight and it risked exporting the virus to Somalia, which is ill-equipped to handle a large coronavirus outbreak.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Palestine Advocacy Days. The organization American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) held the event, “Virtual Palestine Advocacy Days,” which featured conversations with House Democrats including Reps. Betty McCollum (Minnesota) and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan). Panel discussions focused on issues pertaining to human rights and justice in Israel and Palestine, including ways lawmakers could push the United States to extricate itself from supporting Israel’s persistent human rights abuses. McCollum has been at the forefront of that fight, having introduced legislation like the Israeli Annexation Non-Recognition Act and the Promoting Human Rights for Palestinian Children Living Under Israeli Military Occupation Act. For her efforts, AMP awarded Congresswoman McCollum with the Champion of Palestinian Rights Award.

Rep. Lowey Wants Israel-Palestine Partnership Fund Enacted Before Retirement. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York) is retiring after this term in Congress, but before she leaves she hopes to see her prized Middle East Partnership for Peace Act passed into law. Lowey successfully shepherded the legislation into the fiscal year 2021 appropriations budget, but the Senate has refused to take action on that bill, leaving her partnership fund idea in limbo. Lowey told the American Jewish Committee that while she will leave office at a time when Israelis and Palestinians are nowhere near reaching a comprehensive and lasting peace agreement, she hopes that her bill, which sets aside $50 million a year for five years for on-the-ground partnership initiatives, would aid the sides to work further toward achieving peace.

Why Did the Trump Administration Fire the State Department Inspector General? On September 16, the House Foreign Affairs Committee explored the Trump Administration’s decision to fire Inspector General Steve Linick, who was probing, among other things, the secretary of state’s decision to bypass Congress and green-light an arms deal for Saudi Arabia. At the hearing, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs R. Clarke Cooper defended the State Department’s decision to invoke an “emergency” to bypass Congress. However, Democrats on the committee were persistent in their questioning, detailing example after example of Saudi negligence or purposeful targeting of civilian targets in Yemen—to highlight the fact that the department failed to adequately account for how to minimize civilian casualties, as prescribed by US law when considering arms sales.

4) Nominations

Trump Taps New Ambassador to Qatar, SFRC Moves Forward Djibouti Nominee. This week, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance the nomination of Jonathan Pratt as ambassador to Arab League member state Djibouti. In addition, President Trump nominated Lieutenant General Eric P. Wendt, the commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s Special Operations headquarters, to serve as ambassador to Qatar.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Touts Middle East Policy Successes at 75th UNGA. President Trump delivered remarks before the virtual meeting of the 75th United Nations General Assembly this week. Instead of offering a vision for how the international community could work together to tackle some of the world’s most pressing issues, he harkened back to previous addresses to preach the theme of sovereignty. He also criticized China for its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. Furthermore, Trump discussed his administration’s policies toward the Middle East, highlighting recent normalization agreements between Arab countries and Israel and maligning the JCPOA that UN permanent members had negotiated with Iran.

White House Official in Abu Dhabi to Finalize Deal for Sudan-Israel Normalization. This week, the White House National Security Council official overseeing Middle Eastern Affairs is reportedly in the UAE negotiating with representatives of the Emirati and Sudanese governments on a deal that would give Khartoum economic assistance in exchange for announcing a normalization agreement with Israel. Sudan would still have to pay a settlement to the victims of terrorist attacks that the government supported in 1998, but the overall result, if the reports are accurate, would see Israel and Sudan normalize relations in return for billions of dollars of US aid for Khartoum over the next few years. In addition, and as long as Congress gives its support, Sudan would be removed from the US State Sponsor of Terrorism list.

2) Department of State

Administration Officials Seek Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Negotiations. According to a report by Axios, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker has been conducting shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Lebanon. Recently he submitted an updated proposal for the United States to mediate direct negotiations between Tel Aviv and Beirut to settle their maritime border dispute. Schenker has said in previous briefings that he believed Lebanon was close to agreeing to negotiate directly with Israel over the matter, but the Trump Administration is pushing the issue harder ahead of the November US election.

Pompeo, Ambassador Jeffrey Discuss Regional Developments. Two State Department representatives held conversations with regional officials about some of the most pressing issues in the Middle East. Secretary Pompeo hosted UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, after the White House signing ceremony with Israeli, Emirati, and Bahraini officials, to discuss Gulf Cooperation Council unity and the Iranian threat. In addition, Ambassador James Jeffrey traveled to Iraq and Syria to meet with representatives of the Kurdistan Regional Government and the Syrian Democratic Forces, respectively, about ongoing anti-Islamic State efforts and the prospects of ending the war in Syria.

Trump Administration Targets Hezbollah, Says It Is Storing Weapons in Europe. Secretary Pompeo announced new sanctions on Hezbollah this week. The State Department blacklisted two Hezbollah-owned companies and one of the group’s officials for being—as the department described it—part of the deception that has marked rampant corruption in the Lebanese economy and enriched political elites. At the same time, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the coordinator for counterterrorism efforts at the State Department, told the American Jewish Committee—without providing evidence—that Hezbollah operatives have been stockpiling ammonium nitrate in cities throughout Europe. Ammonium nitrate—the same compound that caused the devastating explosion at the Port of Beirut in August—can be used to make explosives and Sales maintained that the group has been moving the substance around Europe for years in case it decided to carry out an attack.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Mark Esper Meets with Israeli Counterpart. Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Washington this week for meetings amid Israel’s push for billions of dollars in new military technology and equipment. According to the Pentagon’s readout of the meeting, the two top defense officials discussed Israel’s qualitative military edge; the pair presumably discussed how Israel’s military wish list would preserve such an advantage should Tel Aviv’s new regional partners receive more advanced weaponry.

4) Department of Justice

Justice Department Orders AJ+ to Register as Foreign Agent under FARA. This week, the Justice Department sent a letter to AJ+, a US digital media company owned by ­Al Jazeera, to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) because it purportedly engages in “political activities” on orders from the Qatari government. Qatar has long denied that it dictates Al Jazeera’s media coverage; nevertheless, the outlet has been the target of criticism inside and outside the United States, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE demanding the organization be shuttered as a precondition for ending their blockade of Qatar. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has called for Al Jazeera as a whole to register under FARA, and other congressional Republicans applauded the move. Doha, on the other hand, accused the UAE of orchestrating the move as part of its agreement to normalize relations with Israel, citing the fact that the move came the day before a UAE delegation visited the White House to sign the accord.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here