Congress’s Post-Recess Middle East Priorities

Members of Congress will return to work September 9 after spending the month of August on recess. Congress has a substantial list of tasks to complete, chiefly to finance the entire federal government before the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. Alongside the budget debates, there are disparate factions in Congress that are likely to pursue certain priorities that would have significant effects on US policy toward the Middle East.

Bipartisan Group Wants to End Support for Yemen War

US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen will undoubtedly be one of the biggest policy fights in the coming months. A bipartisan, bicameral group of lawmakers is pushing for restrictions on US support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen to be included in the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The NDAA has already passed each chamber in varying forms (see the House and Senate versions) and it is currently in conference negotiations, where a select committee of Democrats and Republicans from both the Senate and the House will negotiate a final bill that can pass both chambers.

House and Senate progressives have teamed up with members of the GOP to push the conference committee to include a provision from the House’s version of the NDAA that aims to prohibit US military support for the Saudi-led coalition’s ongoing efforts in Yemen. Most notably this would end US intelligence sharing and prohibit the Trump Administration from reversing its decision to provide mid-air refueling services. Additionally, the House amendment bars the US military from providing the kind of aircraft support and maintenance that is necessary to keep coalition planes in the air.

These efforts come during the annual budgeting period because previous attempts at punishing Saudi Arabia and alleviating the suffering in Yemen have fallen victim to the president’s veto. Now, however, members of Congress are confident that they can insert language into must-pass spending bills that would force the president’s hand. While he can veto actions to protect Saudi Arabia when those bills are stand-alone, vetoing a massive budget deal and risking a government shutdown to protect Riyadh is politically unwise, even for a president used to acting against conventional political wisdom.

Republicans Want to Highlight Democratic Party’s Split on Israel

Another priority for some in Congress pertains to Israel, particularly as 2020 arrives and lawmakers prepare for election season. President Donald Trump is already committed to trying to paint the Democratic Party as anti-Israel and hostile to Jewish Americans (this despite the fact that an overwhelming majority of Jewish voters prefer to vote for Democrats). As Arab Center Washington DC non-resident fellow Yousef Munayyer recently wrote, Republicans already have embraced levying “aggressive and unprecedented attacks … challenging [Democrats] on their pro-Israel bona fides as a way to stoke tension and drive some elite donor support away from the Democratic Party.” One can expect these efforts to intensify as congressional and presidential electioneering ramps up in the coming months.

It is clear that top Democratic operatives are aware of this and are taking steps to combat the image President Trump and his allies are trying to cultivate. Veteran Democratic lawmakers with histories of strong support for Israeli policies have been working to reach out to Israeli officials to assure them that the party as a whole does not subscribe to policies like those held by the progressive wing of the party. For example, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Florida) recently wrote in USA Today that the Democratic Party continues to uphold its support for Israel while President Donald Trump “undermines Jews” and harms the long-standing US-Israel relationship. She wrote the op-ed to address the tumult that has followed Trump’s attempts to turn Israel into a partisan issue. In addition, Haaretz reported this week that three senior House Democrats met with Israeli officials to discuss US-Israel relations in the weeks since President Trump started these attacks on the party. Reps. Eliot Engel (New York), Ted Deutch (Florida), and Brad Sherman (California) had meetings with Israeli consular officials in their respective states to push back against the idea that Democrats are turning into a party considered “anti-Israel.”

Once members of Congress return to Washington, the two parties will continue to jockey for the title of “pro-Israel.” It is likely we will see the sides battle to enact legislation deemed favorable to the Israeli government or take actions meant to paint the other side as insufficiently supportive of Israel.

Republicans May Look to Increase Pressure on Iran

Despite the fact that the Trump Administration is already pursuing its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, there is a hawkish faction of Republicans that may very well agitate for even more pressure and the ultimate undoing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) made clear that he is willing to lead this effort. On September 3, Cruz appeared at the Hudson Institute to share his thoughts on the internal conservative debate between an isolationist foreign policy posture and a more interventionist one. He outlined the tenets of a posture he ascribes to being a “noninterventionist hawk,” one who approaches all foreign policy questions through the scope of US national security interests. This is a position that is not unlike President Trump’s “America First” strategy.

However, as he elaborated on his position, Cruz said that when it comes to Iran—particularly a hypothetical nuclear Iran—he is very much interested in an intervention. He described a nuclear Tehran as the United States’ single greatest national security threat and repeatedly expressed interest in the use of military force to preclude such a scenario. Even more, however, he criticized the “deep state” personnel in the Trump Administration who are preventing the president from taking further steps to pressure Iran. Specifically, Cruz noted how the administration has renewed waivers that allow countries to cooperate on civilian nuclear programs with Tehran. The senator adamantly disapproves of measures like these and wants the United States to do more, such as unilaterally initiating the “snapback” mechanism at the United Nations in an effort to have Iran’s assets frozen around the globe.

Cruz and his Senate colleagues like Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have pushed for increased pressure in the past, but there is reason to believe their efforts could amplify after they return from the summer break. At the present moment, the European parties to the Iranian nuclear deal are intent on salvaging it after the United States’ abrogation. Cruz specifically noted in his briefing that this outreach, combined with the 2020 presidential candidates’ willingness to return to the deal, requires increased pressure that would completely destroy any potential openings in the JCPOA. In sum, Cruz does not want a deal to which a future president could return. Furthermore, by the end of 2020, UN sanctions that prohibit Iran from purchasing conventional weapons will expire and the Trump Administration and its congressional allies are eager to see that embargo extended. Baiting Iran into further shirking its responsibilities under the JCPOA, as Cruz hopes, could persuade the rest of the signatories to extend current sanctions on Tehran.

As lawmakers return from recess, they will be faced with a number of critical issues. But as 2019 draws to a close and 2020 begins the next election cycle, Congress could undertake a host of actions that would affect the Middle East. Of all these competing priorities, policies critical to Yemen, Israel, and Iran will likely be at the forefront of the congressional agenda.

I. Congress

Legislation

Recognizing Islam as One of the Great Religions of the World. On August 30, Rep. Al Green (D-Texas) and Congress’s three Muslim members—André Carson (D-Indiana), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), and Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan)—introduced H. Res. 544 to recognize Islam as one of the world’s great religions. Recently, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) made remarks smearing Muslims as inherently “anti-Jewish” and “anti-Israel”; the resolution is likely a response to that member’s insinuation that Islam will have negative consequences on US politics and the Democratic Party.

Personnel and Correspondence

Reps. Nadler and Collins Call on AG Barr to Push Jordan on Extradition. On August 29, Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) tweeted that he and Rep. Doug Collins (R-Georgia) had sent a letter to Attorney General Bill Barr seeking information on what the Trump Administration is doing to push Jordan to extradite a Palestinian woman accused of participating in a 2001 suicide bombing in Jerusalem. Ahlam Tamimi was sentenced to 16 life sentences in Israel but she was eventually turned over to Jordan as part of a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas. Now, Nadler and Collins want Barr and the Department of Justice to push Jordan to extradite Tamimi to the United States to be tried for the murders of US citizens in the attack.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Pompeo Meets with Saudi Arabia’s Khalid bin Salman. As was noted in last week’s report, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman. The two reportedly discussed the situation in Yemen, including the need for the Saudi-backed government of Yemeni President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi to reconcile with the separatist Southern Transitional Council. In addition, the two spoke about Iran’s activities in the region. Bin Salman also met with Secretary of Defense Mark Esper to discuss the same issues.

Head of Near East Bureau Sworn-In. On August 29, David Schenker was sworn-in as Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. He will oversee State Department policy toward the Middle East and North Africa. He left for his first trip to the region on September 4 and is scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Tunisia, and Lebanon.

Pompeo Meets with UN Envoy for Syria. On August 30, Secretary Pompeo met with the United Nations’ Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen. The two spoke about ongoing UN efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria, including discussion of the situation in Idlib where the Assad regime has carried out brutal bombing operations.

2) Department of the Treasury

US Levies New Actions against Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Hamas. Over the last week, the Treasury Department announced new sanctions on entities supporting and/or financing the regime in Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and the Palestinian group Hamas. One set of sanctions targets two networks affiliated with the regime in Tehran for helping procure critical technology for Iran’s weapons program. The other two groups of sanctions target entities and individuals accused of financing the designated terrorist groups. Specifically, Jammal Trust Bank in Lebanon is now considered a specially designated global terrorist entity for its work providing funds to Hezbollah, and two individuals are subject to sanctions for their roles in facilitating money transfers between Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

In addition, the United States has sanctioned the Adrian Darya 1 and its captain for being part of an illicit oil network that is used to finance the IRGC’s Quds Force. The Adrian Darya 1 (formerly Grace 1) was the subject of an international tug-of-war when it was stopped in Gibraltar and, despite US efforts, was allowed to sail free in disregard of US warnings that its oil shipment was headed to Syria. Now the ship is said to be masking its movements as it heads toward the Syrian coast to offload its $130 million in oil. Washington later levied sanctions on a wider Quds Force petroleum shipping network for illicit oil transfers (a State Department briefing on this matter can be seen here).

The United States also designated Iran’s space agency and two of its research institutions as proliferators of weapons of mass destruction. The Iran Space Agency is responsible for Tehran’s space launch program, but the Trump Administration insists that its space launch vehicle technology is identical to ballistic missile technology and thus, in essence, it is a proliferator of ballistic missiles.

3) Department of Defense

US Military Deemed “Complicit” in Yemen War Crimes. The United Nations recently published an incriminating report detailing a number of possible war crimes that have been carried out over the course of the war in Yemen. The group of experts who drafted the report wrote that both sides—the Houthi rebels and the Saudi-led coalition battling them—are responsible for these crimes. The United States (along with France and the United Kingdom) is also deemed complicit in these crimes for its willingness to provide weapons and support to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners as well as its unwillingness to hold the coalition accountable for actions that may circumvent international human rights laws.

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