Congressional Update – Week Ending January 12, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Res. 675/676. On January 8, House members offered two resolutions to address the recent protests in cities and villages across Iran. The first would communicate the body’s condemnation of the Iranian regime’s violent response to a number of the protests that took place. The second would laud the Iranian demonstrators and lend lawmakers’ support for their peaceful protests. The former was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration while the latter was adopted by a vote of 415-2.

H.R. 4744. On January 9, Reps. Mike McCaul (R-Texas) and Ted Deutch (D-Florida) introduced the Iran Human Rights and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, with HFAC Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) and Ranking Member Eliot Engel (D-New York) signing on as cosponsors. This bill mandates that the president submit annual reports to Congress outlining if any Iranian individuals are eligible for sanctions, laid out in previous pieces of legislation, for violations of human rights. As for hostage-taking activities, the bill makes clear that the US government will not pay ransom for individuals—US citizens or certain Iranians with US visas—taken hostage by any Iranians. It also mandates that the president submit annual reports identifying individuals who have played roles in such activities, subjecting them to further sanctions. Though sanctions appear to be the favored tactic for members of Congress these days (more on that below), the cosponsors of this legislation have been trying to solicit more support for the bill in hopes of passing it into law.

Res. 684. On January 11, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey), Mike Gallagher (R-Wisconsin), and Eliot Engel introduced a resolution that objects to the United Nations General Assembly resolution that was adopted in the wake of President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The UN resolution criticized the action, and these House members want to notify the body that they are not pleased with the UN statement. The resolution was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

FISA. On January 11, the House passed a bill by a vote of 256-164 that would reauthorize the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which allows the federal government, among other things, to spy on foreign citizens residing outside the United States. The bill the House passed is a slightly modified version of H.R. 4478 that was proposed in late 2017 by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-California).

At the center of the debate regarding surveillance authorities is Section 702 which, with a special court order, allows the National Security Agency (NSA) to collect, in bulk, the electronic communications of foreign persons living abroad. For national security hawks, this is an essential tool for the fight against terrorism. However, in the bulk collection process, the NSA quite often collects information and communications of US citizens. Technically, the NSA does not analyze the information of the US citizens who get swept up in the surveillance, but there is a process by which the agency can “unmask” the information it collects as well as run different kinds of queries that would allow analysts to learn the citizens’ identities. Civil liberties advocates argue that this violates US citizens’ Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure.

The fight for FISA boils down to this: national security hawks want to have a “clean” reauthorization of the authorities, avoiding “sunsetting”—or placing an expiration date on the legislation—and to give the NSA full authority to use the data it collects as it sees fit. Civil liberties advocates, on the other hand, want more protections in place to prevent the misuse of the information that is collected. In passing the FISA reauthorization bill, the House agreed to maintain a sunset provision, allowing lawmakers to review the program again in six years; in addition, it places slight protections on how US citizens’ communications are used by the NSA and other agencies. However, House members voted against an amendment offered by Reps. Justin Amash (R-Michigan) and Zoe Lofgren (D-California) that would have placed even more restrictions on how citizens’ communications are used once they are collected.

The opposition in the House to these restrictions could make for a tough sale in the Senate, where Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and others have already voiced their displeasure with the House bill. Paul has also vowed to filibuster the bill unless it is fixed. However, a majority of senators, Republican and Democrat, alike, support the House bill, so it could find its way to becoming law.

2) Hearings

Sanctions and Financial Pressure: Major National Security Tools. On January 10, the HFAC held a hearing on the use of sanctions as major national security tools. The hearing was a panel discussion about the current challenges facing the United States in its use of sanctions and how best to effectively implement sanctions set forth in laws like the “Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act.” This is particularly timely because the deadline for implementation of the sanctions in the law is at the end of January. The panel was also called partly in response to the looming decision involving US sanctions, which must be made by the president regarding the contentious Iran nuclear deal by the end of the week. The panel was comprised of Juan C. Zarate of Financial Integrity Network, Derek Maltz of Pen-Link, Ltd., and Adam Szubin of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

In addition to outlining the looming deadlines mentioned above, Chairman Royce remarked that the panel was important for understanding how best to enforce existing sanctions and how lawmakers can more effectively use sanctions in the future. Ranking member Engel echoed Royce’s sentiment and indicated his desire to see sanctions used more effectively against the United States’ adversaries, particularly Iran. The witnesses’ testimonies began and ended on similar notes. Zarate and Szubin both voiced their concerns that the overuse of sanctions in US foreign policy is both diminishing their usefulness and straining resources across the agencies tasked with enforcing the laws.

Szubin took this a step further, mentioning explicitly the lack of funds the Department of the Treasury receives for staff support; he urged the need to equip the department with the tools needed to succeed. Among other things, Zarate stressed that the United States be creative and flexible in its use of sanctions to ensure overall effectiveness of the system. In sum, Zarate and Szubin neatly outlined more than two dozen recommendations for the committee to consider. Besides emphasizing the need to more coherently enforce the sanctions already in place, both urged the committee to remember that sanctions are but one tool in what should be a “whole of government approach” to countering destabilizing behavior around the globe. Additionally, the two suggested that Congress ensures that the United States nurtures strong relations abroad, maintains the integrity and dominance of its economy, and controls sanctions legislation—not allowing individual states to levy independent sanctions or for federal sanctions legislation to be used too profusely.

Maltz differed slightly in his remarks, choosing to focus more on the importance of communication across all law enforcement agencies and coherence within the system of sanctions. However, all panelists agreed on the need for an increase in effectiveness of the US system since it plays a leading role in setting measures and norms worldwide.

US Policy in Syria Post-ISIS. On January 11, the SFRC held a hearing intended to provide senators with information about how the State and Defense Departments intend to tackle the problems facing Syria after the defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) becomes fully complete. However, the Department of Defense declined to send an expert to testify, so the State Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Satterfield, was the sole witness at the hearing.

In their opening statements, Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tennessee) and Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) offered similar messages: What is the State Department—and the Trump Administration more broadly—doing to stop the violence and destruction in Syria, and how does it intend to reach a political settlement of the years-long conflict between the disparate groups? Satterfield began his testimony outlining the great progress made by the United States in driving terrorists out of the “caliphate” IS once held and in providing billions of dollars in humanitarian aid. In addition, he outlined the administration’s main focus areas at the moment: defeating terrorists, preventing nuclear proliferation, ensuring the stability of Syria’s neighbors, and reaching a political settlement to the conflict.

Elaborating on the last point, Satterfield explained it is the US position that unless a political process has the support of the United Nations and the international community and includes periods of constitutional reform and free and fair elections, it will not be supported by the United States and its allies. This lack of support, he said, would preclude US, European, or other allies’ funds from being used to tackle the reportedly $200-$300 billion-dollar reconstruction effort needed for postwar Syria.

While many of the acting assistant’s statements sounded plausible, he was repeatedly pressed by an unconvinced audience of senators for more specific details. Members of the committee, regardless of party affiliation, were generally unimpressed with the lack of concrete steps for obtaining the stated goals, and many of the “how” questions went unanswered.

President Trump’s “Ultimate Deal”: Is Israeli-Palestinian Peace Possible? On the same day, the Heritage Foundation hosted an event to explore if Trump could make good on his vow to solve the decades-long conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. This event is important to note because the keynote address was delivered by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-Florida), who chairs the House Oversight and Government Reform’s Subcommittee on National Security. As a member of the committee that conducts oversight on federal agencies and departments, DeSantis is privy to much of the information surrounding US federal policies, and in that capacity, he made statements that surprised the audience.

Aside from his general dissatisfaction with the idea of a Palestinian state, his unconditional support for President Trump and Israel, and his belief that the root of all problems in the Middle East stem from former President Obama’s policies, he shared two other interesting opinions. First, he noted that he does not believe that the United States should play a role in facilitating any potential peace deal between the two sides. It is rare to hear members of Congress take such a position, but he asserted that the United States’ allegiance lies with Israel and that Washington should not broker a deal with a side he described as “unaccepting” of Israel as a state.

Second, DeSantis disclosed that he believes the United States will open a temporary embassy in Jerusalem sometime in 2018. This contradicts most reporting—and even some administration statements—but he said that there seem to be promising developments regarding one particular plot of land in Jerusalem, and that announcements about the status of an embassy move could come in just days.

3) Personnel

Retirements. This week it was announced that Rep. Ed Royce will not seek reelection in this year’s midterms. Royce represents a less conservative district in California—one that Hillary Clinton won in the 2016 presidential elections. His decision is momentous, but House leadership was already going to have to shake up committee leadership positions because Royce was term-limited in his position as chairman of the HFAC. His replacement as chair is up in the air. Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-California) and Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) have the most seniority but are not particularly loved by the House GOP leadership. In fact, both members had more seniority than Royce in 2012, but the Republican leadership chose Royce to head the committee anyway.

Joining Royce in declining reelection is fellow California Republican Darrell Issa. Though Issa sits on the HFAC, this is most notable because Issa is one of only a small handful of members of Congress of Arab descent. Issa’s father is Lebanese-American. Though he announced he will not seek reelection, he specified that he would be declining to do so in his specific district, leaving many wondering if he would run in a neighboring district should another seat become available.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Facing Deadlines, Trump Makes JCPOA Decisions. This week marked a series of deadlines for the Trump Administration to make decisions regarding the fate of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and other US sanctions on Iran. The certification requirement for the president laid out in the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) is due again on January 13. Like in October of 2017, Trump is likely to refuse to certify that the agreement is in the United States’ best interest, giving Congress another 60 days in which it can “snap back” sanctions.

Before then, though, the president faced—and will face—other, more important deadlines. As part of the JCPOA, former President Obama exercised his right to waive specific sanctions—as outlined in the sanctions legislation detailed below—in exchange for cooperation from Iran on upholding the nuclear deal. On January 10, the president had to decide whether to continue to waive the sanctions that were set forth in a pair of 2012 laws. The Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act of 2012 and Iran Threat Reduction and Syria Human Rights Act of 2012 levied sanctions on Iran, barring it from importing certain materials, exporting energy products, and accessing financial institutions or conducting certain financial transactions. Both pieces of legislation, like most sanctions legislation, included a waiver that the president could use to suspend sanctions and a renewal deadline if such waivers were exercised. The president opted to issue another waiver, keeping the sanctions suspended for now.

January 11 was the deadline for a renewed waiver for sanctions that were imposed by an amendment included in the fiscal year 2012 National Defense Authorization Act, which President Trump also decided to extend. Those sanctions were placed on the Central Bank of Iran and other crucial financial institutions and prohibited them from accessing the US financial system.

Finally, President Trump must decide on January 17 whether to issue a new waiver for sanctions set forth by the 2016 Iran Sanctions Act. These sanctions further restrict Iran’s energy sector and access to international capital and credit, but the act remains waived until the January 17 deadline. Trump is expected to issue another waiver for these sanctions as well, leaving Iran’s energy sector safe from punitive measures.

If President Trump is so adamant that he dislikes the JCPOA, why might he agree to suspend the sanctions that crippled Iran’s economy? The answer to that involves several factors. First and foremost, although many lawmakers and observers disapprove of the deal, there is almost a consensus that reimposing sanctions at this moment is a bad idea. For critics of the deal, they want more time for members of Congress to craft new legislation that would both strengthen the existing deal and add more sanctions for non-nuclear-related activities, like Iran’s human rights abuses and its ballistic missile program. For supporters of the deal, the argument is that there is no need for the United States to neglect its commitments under the JCPOA since the international community agrees that the deal is working; instead, the administration should continue waiving sanctions, as agreed, while finding other ways to punish Iran for its malign behavior.

Some senators, reportedly, are reaching an agreement for legislation to “fix” the nuclear deal, so the picture will become clearer in the coming weeks about the United States’ role in it. For now, it appears that Mr. Trump will keep his predecessor’s deal in place while singling out some Iranian individuals and entities to be sanctioned by the United States.

2) Department of Justice

DOJ Opens Investigation into Hezbollah. On January 11, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that he would be appointing a team of investigators to look into individuals and entities providing support for the Lebanese group. The move appears to be a response to recent reports on a previous interagency operation—known as Project Cassandra—that some say was purposely scuttled by the Obama Administration. Sessions vowed to complete the operation.

Joe Macaron is a Resident Analyst at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Joe and read his previous publications click here