Congressional Update – Week Ending February 2, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

2353/S.2365. On January 29, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced another piece of legislation that targets Iran. Like the title, Iranian Leadership Asset Transparency Act, suggests, Cotton and his sole cosponsor, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), seek to direct the Department of the Treasury to submit annual reports detailing how much equity and how many assets certain Iranian leaders maintain in US jurisdictions. This piece of legislation is nearly identical to a House bill detailed in previous updates that passed a full vote in the House but on which Senate committees have thus far refrained from taking action. This bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which is the same committee that has refused to act on the House version, so it is unclear whether Cotton’s proposal will prompt new action. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) later introduced S. 2365, another bill aimed at Iran, this time sanctioning government officials for human rights abuses.

Res. 388. Senate Democrats introduced a resolution this week that would highlight the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s first attempt at banning travelers from Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States. Additionally, the resolution would express the sense of senators that President Trump needs to be a leader on the issue of taking in refugees fleeing dangerous environments, as opposed to his typically divisive position on the issue. As a partisan resolution that criticizes the leader of the majority’s party, this resolution will likely die in committee.

2) Correspondence and Personnel

Members of Congress Write to Cabinet Members in Support of Syrians. For the last couple of weeks, US senators and representatives have been writing letters to Trump Administration officials urging the White House to reauthorize the temporary protected status (TPS) of nearly 7,000 Syrians living in the United States. The deadline for renewal of the designation is not until the end of March, but the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was required to issue a decision on whether the department would seek to terminate TPS this week. Following the termination of TPS for hundreds of thousands of immigrants from other countries last year, many feared that Syrian nationals would be next. However, DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen announced on January 31 that DHS would, in fact, extend TPS, but only to Syrians who arrived in the United States prior to August 2016 and have remained in the country continuously since October 2016.

Months-Old Syria Caucus Gains Another Member. A Washington-based Syrian-American group announced this week that the Congressional caucus on Syria—named the Friends of a Free, Stable and Democratic Syria Caucus—would be receiving a new member in the House. Rep. Bill Foster (D-Illinois), according to the aforementioned group (and confirmed by Foster’s office), will be joining the bipartisan caucus on Syria. Founded in June, the group has already garnered 38 members between the two parties.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Delivers State of the Union Address. On January 30, President Trump delivered his first State of the Union address. While it was lengthy (80 minutes), there was little more than an outline of general goals and lists of achievements; anyone wanting concrete policy prescriptions was left wanting. The majority of the speech focused on domestic policies, but Trump did venture into the realm of foreign policy briefly. The key takeaways from his speech regarding foreign policy are as follows:

  • President Trump plans to keep open the controversial Guantanamo Bay detention facility that the United States operates out of Cuba. Many lawmakers and observers have criticized the role that Gitmo, as it is commonly called, has played in the US War on Terror. The detention facility has overwhelmingly housed detainees from the Middle East and North Africa and, since its early days of operations, there have been numerous reports of abuse and torture. Additionally, terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS) have referenced Guantanamo Bay in recruitment videos, making the idea of keeping it open even more toxic for the United States’ image abroad.
  • The president asked Congress to help him punish the international community for its condemnation of his unilateral move to consider Jerusalem Israel’s capital. Ironically, he characterized this decision strictly as a domestic issue and argued that anyone who supported the UN resolution condemning the move should not be afforded US financial support. This is an unproductive ask of Congress, however, because major Arab Middle East allies—and major recipients of US support—like Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states all voted in favor of the resolution and lawmakers would be skeptical about withholding funding to these key players in the region.
  • Trump called on Congress to “fix” the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that he so thoroughly despises. During the address he echoed sentiments he has made in the past, urging lawmakers to fix problems in the Iran nuclear deal. His plea to lawmakers is a bit perplexing, however, because Congress has no jurisdiction over the deal, as former President Obama did not submit it to lawmakers to make it a legally binding treaty. While critics and supporters alike can argue about Obama’s decision, there is no question that the executive branch, through its constitutional powers as executor of foreign policy, has the ability to craft agreements like the JCPOA. Thus, because the Obama Administration agreed to the deal and Congress has no jurisdiction, the legislative body cannot “fix” the deal. Instead, Trump would need to appoint someone, as Obama did, to carry out negotiations with Iran and the other signatories to the deal, and agree on any changes. There has been no indication that President Trump has even entertained the idea, despite billing himself as the greatest negotiator, so his pleas to Congress appear to be hollow rhetoric intended to give the appearance of efforts to craft a better deal before scuttling the United States’ upholding of the JCPOA.

Trump Holds Meeting with Ambassadors of the UNSC. Prior to Trump’s pillorying of the international community during his State of the Union address, he met with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, and other nations’ ambassadors to the UN Security Council (UNSC). During this meeting, Trump spoke at length about the international community’s efforts to resolve the Syrian war and counter Iran’s malign activities in the Middle East. Ambassador Haley also took UNSC members to see, first-hand, evidence of Iran’s “illegal weapons program.”

DHS Revokes Travel Ban. DHS Secretary Nielsen was forced to address a particular aspect of President Trump’s executive order curtailing immigration and refugee resettlement in the United States this week. In the most recent iteration of what is dubbed the “travel ban,” refugee resettlement in the United States was prohibited for a 120-day period. Following the expiration of that period, the administration issued another directive in October 2016 allowing for refugees from all but 11 countries to be resettled in the United States, albeit after tougher scrutiny. For those 11 countries—including Arab League countries Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and Iraq—and majority-Muslim Iran, refugees were generally prohibited from resettling in the United States for an additional 90 days. That period expired this week and Nielsen announced that, under tougher vetting strategies, the blanket ban on refugees from those 11 countries is also lifted. Though refugees in the resettlement process may have better luck reaching the United States now, the fundamental block against travel for citizens of Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and Iran (among others) will still prevent general travel.

White House Envoy Visits Israel. The Trump Administration’s point man on jumpstarting the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians, Special Representative Jason Greenblatt, was in Israel this week. He made a pair of appearances, the first at the Institute for National Security Studies’ (INSS) 11th Annual International Conference at Tel Aviv University in Israel. The conference examined Israel’s strengths and challenges and explored Israel’s trajectory for the next few years. The conference brought together a number of experts in current affairs in the region and Greenblatt was just one of the US government officials asked to speak.

Greenblatt focused on the current role of the United States in the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. He started by explaining that pursuing peace between them seems daunting at times, but that it can be achieved if approached correctly. Greenblatt noted that since he began working in the region in the early 1980s, Israel’s role in the peace process has shifted. Originally, Israel was considered an impediment to peace, Greenblatt argued, but today people view Israel as part of the solution to this and other regional issues. The United States, Greenblatt noted, accurately understands Israel’s role in the region and it has taken steps to further peace negotiations, despite the current climate.

Greenblatt later discussed President Trump’s “unique perspective” in the current negotiations. He praised Trump for having a “fresh set of eyes” and “bold decisions” regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This, he claimed, has changed expectations about what is possible and revitalized the language of the peace process. Greenblatt recognized that there has been suspicion about the US role in peace talks, but he assured the audience that the United States, under the Trump Administration, would continue its efforts toward creating a more peaceful situation for both Israelis and Palestinians. Greenblatt also addressed President Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem; he defended the move, stating that the president was just acknowledging an “obvious reality.” He said the move would not prejudge any final status issues or change the status of the holy sites in Jerusalem, nor should it serve as proof of US bias toward Israel. He also argued that peace would not be achieved by denying Judaism’s claims to both Jerusalem and the land of Israel. Ultimately, Greenblatt said, the United States would continue fighting for peace in the region.

Greenblatt also attended a meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, a 15-member group seeking to assist in policy-level coordination for providing development assistance to the Palestinian people. There, Greenblatt reiterated the points he made at the INSS conference and argued to a skeptical audience that Trump’s “unorthodox” position toward the peace process is not a detriment. In terms of policy opinions, though, Greenblatt spent much time calling on the Palestinians to redouble efforts to take control of development in the Gaza and the West Bank and calling on all sides to update and finalize purchasing agreements to allow for more financing and investment in Palestinian development.

Trump to Try Peace without Palestinians? It was reported this week that President Trump and his team may release the administration’s blueprint for peace between Israel and Palestine, once completed, even if the Palestinian Authority (PA) is boycotting the United States’ involvement. Though it seems pointless on the outside, administration officials apparently believe that publicizing the agreement the team crafted will rally support from major players (e.g., GCC countries or the Europeans) and entice Palestinians to return to the table. This comes only weeks after Trump announced that his administration would slash funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which is tasked with assisting Palestinian refugees uprooted in 1948. UNRWA works in the Occupied Palestinian Territories and also supports sizable Palestinian refugee populations in Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon by running schools, medical clinics, and providing other services. If the Trump Administration hopes to spark new interest in good-faith negotiations with the Palestinians, its decision on UNRWA this week is unlikely to help. According to the administration, not only will UNRWA receive less financial support from the United States, but any funds it does receive cannot be spent in Syria or Lebanon. This will leave hundreds of thousands without crucial services and cash assistance. The move could also hurt Lebanon, which is already strained by a sluggish economy and the burden of hosting large Syrian and Palestinian refugee populations.

US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue. This week, the United States and Qatar carried out the first annual US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue. Qatar sent a high-profile delegation to meet with counterparts in the Trump Administration, possibly signaling a new US position on Qatar vis-à-vis the GCC crisis. The two sides signed three memoranda of understanding (MOUs) whose benefits are expected to be wide-ranging. To better understand the political and legal implications of this week’s successful bilateral engagements, see ACW’s recent event and summary.

2) State Department

State Department Officials Pan Middle East. The last week has been a busy one for top State Department officials as a number of diplomats visited the Middle East. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Andrew Peek, and a top Treasury Department official, Eric Meyer, traveled to Iraq for the fifth annual US-Iraq Higher Coordinating Committee. The delegation, joined by US Ambassador to Iraq Douglas Silliman, first stopped in Baghdad to conduct meetings with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and members of his cabinet. With Abadi, the delegation discussed continued cooperation in matters of security, diplomacy, trade and finance, and counterterrorism. The delegation then traveled to Irbil, the seat of power in Iraqi Kurdistan, to meet with Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and other leaders. Like in Baghdad, the sides spoke about ways to further cooperation in areas of mutual interest, but US officials also urged Kurdistan to open better lines of communication with Baghdad in order to maintain a united and stable Iraq.

While Sullivan and company were in Iraq, Acting Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department Ambassador Nathan Sales joined Jason Greenblatt at the INSS conference in Tel Aviv. Satterfield gave a general assessment of the strategic challenges facing Israel, the United States, and the Middle East more broadly. Specifically, he outlined three major challenges for the region: to protect the United States and its partners in the Middle East; to help stabilize the region and endeavor to prevent future radicalization which, Satterfield said, would entail a prolonged US military presence in Syria as well as a Syrian-led process to create a new political system; and to defeat of IS in Syria and Iraq. Satterfield indicated that the international community must look beyond Iraq and Syria and engage countries like Libya to assist in quelling the threat from IS. While the anti-IS coalition has made great strides toward dismantling IS militarily, Satterfield acknowledged that the path forward has been complicated by Turkey’s new offensive in Afrin, Syria, and Russia’s support for the Assad regime. In addition, Satterfield focused on Iran’s increasing influence and destabilizing activities in the region. He condemned the Islamic Republic’s role in the wars in Yemen and Syria and their support for regional terrorist groups; he also intimated that Iran has played a role in the protracted crisis between the GCC states. The Trump Administration’s growing concern for the Iran nuclear deal, Satterfield stressed, was that it neither adequately prevents Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons nor blocks terrorist organizations from obtaining those weapons from Iran.

Ambassador Sales outlined the counterterrorism threats in the region and the United States’ efforts to mitigate them. He began by painting a broad picture of the relationship between Israel and the United States, highlighting what he considered similar ideals, values, and adversaries shared by the two countries. Sales then shifted the discussion to the principal threats the Trump Administration sees in the Middle East, pointing to Iran as the first and foremost menace to the region and to the world more broadly. Specifically, he mentioned Tehran’s support of groups Washington considers terrorist like the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and Hamas. Iran, he argued, has given roughly $700 million in financial support to Hezbollah and an additional $100 million to Palestinian extremist groups. That support, Sales said, has enabled terrorist organizations to carry out assaults both in the region and in the United States. In addition to Iran and Iran-backed terrorist groups, Sales identified the IS branch in Egypt’s Sinai, which has conducted several bombings throughout Egypt, as a major threat.

Sales described the bulk of the administration’s efforts as using the Specifically Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) distinction in order to suffocate financial support of the terrorist groups Hezbollah, Hamas, and the IRGC. In this regard, he announced that, for the first time, a new list of SDGT designations that most notably includes Palestinian Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and the Egyptian group known as Harakat Sawa’d Misr (HASM). Sales concluded that the focus moving forward will be on pressing for greater international action against Hezbollah and continued counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and Israel.

3) Department of Defense

General Votel Visits Jordan. This week, the chief of US Central Command, General Joseph Votel, visited Jordan’s King Abdullah Air Base in a ceremony marking the handover of the final tranche of Black Hawk helicopters the US provided to the Jordanian Air Force. Jordan is one of the largest recipients of US military aid and Votel acknowledged that the United States would like to increase that support to better prepare Jordan to aid in “quick-reaction operations” and protect its own borders amid the instability surrounding the country.

4) Broadcasting Board of Governors

Alberto Fernandez Discusses Future of Arabic Language Broadcasting. On January 30, the Hudson Institute hosted three scholars to discuss the potential use of media in the Arab to “catalyze liberalism” in the region. The event was primarily an introduction to the book of one of the panelists, but some US policy considerations were also discussed. Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, who heads the United States’ Middle East Broadcasting Network (MBN) for the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), served as a panelist and offered valuable insight into US policy regarding media and information sharing in the Middle East, as the MBN, by way of the BBG, is an executive branch entity.

Fernandez said that with the US expenditure of roughly $100 million annually on Arabic-language broadcasting in the Middle East, he has spent the first six months of his tenure pushing for reforms that would allow the MBN to better pursue a long-term agenda that transcends four- or eight-year terms of administrations. To be effective and build credibility and name recognition, Fernandez has tasked the MBN staff to make programs premium, unique, and an unparalleled source of news and information. In the long term, he hopes to pursue an unabashed agenda of pushing “aggressive liberal reform narratives” through MBN’s Arabic language broadcasts by giving platforms to new, younger voices, as well as highlighting historical liberal thinkers from the region. Interestingly, Fernandez noted that the United States would feature liberal thinkers even if they were not viewed by the government to be “pro-America.”

III. Judicial Branch

Judge Grants Injunction in Anti-BDS Case. This week, a federal judge ruled in favor of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and its Kansan client, Esther Koontz, who sued the state of Kansas for its law banning public employees from participating in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) activities that target Israel. The judge, in a first of its kind ruling in cases involving BDS, will block state authorities in Kansas from enforcing this law; Koontz declined to sign a teaching contract with the state after it required that she sign a statement saying she is “not engaged” in any boycotts of Israel. Koontz would not sign the statement because she does, in fact, participate in an organized boycott of Israel, refusing to buy goods or services produced by Israeli companies or other companies that operate in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. Koontz and her ACLU counsel contend that the boycott is a form of constitutionally protected free speech and protest. Though the judge agreed with their argument at this juncture, the stay the judge issued only prevents the state’s enforcement of the law until the case is fully adjudicated.

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