Congressional Update – Week Ending October 13, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

National Intelligence Estimate on Iranian Proxy Forces. On October 11, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) and 12 others introduced H.R. 4012, requiring a government estimate of the number and capabilities of Iranian-backed proxy forces throughout the Middle East. With the Iranian nuclear threat initially addressed by the nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, JCPOA), many lawmakers turned their attention to addressing Iran’s support for groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon and certain popular mobilization forces (PMFs) in Iraq. This bill intends to further the government’s assessment of the threats these groups pose. The bill was referred to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC).

Preparing Israel for All Contingencies. The same day, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 4017, “United States-Israel Common Defense Authorization Act.” This bill allows the president to assist Israel in planning for any and all contingencies in case Iran tries to develop nuclear weapons after the JCPOA provisions expire. The authorization to assist Israel is likely to be interpreted as freeing the president to provide more money to Israel. The bill was also referred to the HFAC.

Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act. On October 12, the HFAC unanimously approved H.R. 1698 that levies more sanctions against Iran for its continued development of intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As amended, this bill would require the government to report on the supply chain on which the Iranian ballistic missile program depends. The bill expands sanctions by amending the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996; any person or entity that helps Iran further its ICBM program or facilitates procurement of prohibited conventional arms will be subjected to these sanctions. The bill will be considered next by the entire House of Representatives.

2) Hearings

Confronting the Full Range of Iranian Threats. On October 11, the HFAC held a hearing to assess the available options for confronting the full range of threats Iran poses to US security interests. Appearing before the committee was former Ambassador James Jeffrey, Retired Air Force General Charles Wald, President of the Institute for Science and International Security David Albright, and Jake Sullivan, who once served as the National Security Advisor for Vice President Joe Biden.

During his opening remarks, Chairman Ed Royce (R-California) recounted the threats Iran poses in the region. He specifically mentioned how Iran has threatened to assert itself in newly liberated areas of Syria in an effort to create a contiguous land bridge stretching from Iraq, through Syria, to Lebanon. This land bridge would only further Tehran’s desire to annihilate Israel, Royce argued. Though the Iran nuclear deal may be flawed, the chairman admitted that, at this point, it is vital to enforce it as much as possible. While the hearing was called to discuss all aspects of Iran’s threatening behavior in the Middle East, the JCPOA was the primary topic of interest.

Ambassador Jeffrey, agreeing with Royce’s assessments of the danger Iran poses, suggested the administration prioritize combatting Iran, but to do so by developing a new diplomatic plan, not abandoning the JCPOA. General Wald—while agreeing that the United States should continue observing the deal—urged the administration to seek to reform current US strategy toward Iran, including making it clear that the United States is willing to take measures to defend against Iran’s missile capabilities.

Mr. Albright disagreed, arguing that if the United States reneges on the JCPOA, it would signal to the other parties that the deal is flawed and would eventually prompt the other signatories to renegotiate the agreement. Mr. Sullivan closed out the witnesses’ prepared remarks by stating that the JCPOA is working exactly as intended. He agreed that the deal is not the perfect one, but he argued that, until now, it has done what was most needed. Mr. Sullivan was the only panelist to state his belief that Iran is complying with the JCPOA. The majority of committee members who posed questions to the witnesses maintained that reneging on the deal is not in the interest of the United States, but most also called for renewed efforts to confront Iran for its other problematic behaviors.

US Policy Toward Lebanon. Also on October 11, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to allow members of Congress to question administration officials about the nature and effectiveness of US programs in Lebanon. Representing the administration was Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Michael Ratney, and Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for the United States Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Middle East Bureau Jeanne Pryor.

The subcommittee members in attendance all understood the struggles Lebanon has faced since the outbreak of the Syrian war and most agreed that remaining engaged and ensuring Lebanon’s security is in the United States’ best interests. However, most were suspect of Lebanon’s ability to separate itself from Hezbollah and are concerned that US aid—particularly to the Lebanese Armed Forces—is helping support the party as well. Mr. Ratney said the State Department is also concerned about Hezbollah’s influence in the country, but in its assessment, it is crucial that the United States remain Lebanon’s primary security partner. To address concerns about Hezbollah, however, the State Department has worked to implement new sanctions, offer “rewards for justice” for the capture of fugitive Hezbollah figures, and adopt a new resolution in the United Nations Security Council that extends and strengthens the powers of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL).

From Ms. Pryor’s position, there is little evidence that funds and assistance from USAID have benefited Hezbollah. In fact, through investment initiatives, education programs, and food assistance efforts, she believes that the Lebanese people no longer have to depend on Hezbollah for the provision of services; further, they now have opportunities to contribute to the struggling Lebanese economy. In total, the administration believes in sustained support and US engagement with Lebanon. Regarding concerns about Hezbollah and Iranian influence, Lebanese-American Representative Darrell Issa (R-California) summed up the session when he said that disengaging from Lebanon simply hands the country over to Iran and Hezbollah.

II. The Executive Branch

1) The White House

Iran Strategy Announcement. This week the Trump Administration announced its new Iran strategy following National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster’s policy review. One necessary step for President Trump was to decide whether he would certify Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA. As expected, President Trump refused to certify it, but not because of failure to comply but because he no longer sees the agreement as being in the United States’ national security interests. Another aspect of the strategy centers on the White House’s position toward Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Earlier reports suggested that the administration would designate the IRGC as a terrorist group—an assessment that is mandated by law before the end of October. In the end, President Donald Trump announced in a press conference on October 13 that he authorized the Treasury Department to name the IRGC a terrorist group under executive order 13224, just like the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act requires. This will put more sanctions on the IRGC, but it isn’t as wide ranging as other options the administration was considering.

In response to the president’s decision, Republican Senators Bob Corker (Tennessee) and Tom Cotton (Arkansas) agreed to introduce an amendment to the Iranian Nuclear Agreement Review Act (INARA) on behalf of the White House that would amend the timeline in which the president must certify the deal. As it stands, President Trump has to certify, or refuse to certify, the deal every 90 days. In addition, the amended language allows for nuclear-related sanctions that were removed under the JCPOA to be reimposed automatically should Iran reach a “breakout” period—or time it takes to produce nuclear weapons—of a year or less.

H.R. McMaster on Trump’s National Security Strategy. Earlier in the week, National Security Advisor McMaster appeared at a Center for Strategic and International Studies event alongside three former presidential advisors. While the event was intended to discuss the nature and evolution of the National Security Council, McMaster took some time to highlight the Trump Administration’s national security strategy. According to McMaster, the Trump Administration is taking a unique stance toward foreign affairs compared to the administrations of his two predecessors. Due to the “democratization of destruction” taking hold around the globe, McMaster and the national security team have formulated a strategy of “strategic competence” that lies somewhere between Bush 43’s bragging about what the United States had the power to control and the Obama strategy of withdrawal, which McMaster described as “defeatism.” In addition, McMaster described the White House’s position as one of “pragmatic realism” that requires the administration to emphasize peace through strength, explore new forms of deterrence, and advance American influence globally.

2) State Department

US Efforts to Counter Hezbollah. On October 10, the State Department held an on-the-record briefing with the director of the National Counterterrorism Center Nick Rasmussen and coordinator for counterterrorism at the department Ambassador Nathan Sales. Rasmussen began the briefing by providing background information on Hezbollah’s international terrorism activity while Sales outlined US efforts to counter the party’s terror activities globally.

Rasmussen outlined three recurring themes the National Counterterrorism Center has observed about Hezbollah. First, the group clearly uses terrorism around the globe and has done so consistently for decades. Second, it is trying to advance terrorism activity even further worldwide. Finally, according to Rasmussen, Hezbollah is almost singularly focused on targeting US interests globally as well as within US borders. In addition to its unconventional tactics, the group has stockpiled a formidable conventional arsenal in Lebanon, Rasmussen reported.

Sales took time to outline the State Department’s three main efforts to combat Hezbollah. First, the State Department maintains its years-long foreign terrorist designation for the group and all the sanctions that come with it. Second, the department has begun issuing multimillion-dollar rewards under the “rewards for justice” program, including two recent rewards for Hezbollah members. Finally, Sales explained that the United States has been pushing the United Nations and European countries to designate Hezbollah a foreign terrorist designation as a whole. As it stands, many countries differentiate between Hezbollah’s military arm and the political arm that holds seats in Lebanon’s parliament and cabinet. The United States does not share this distinction and the rest of the world should follow suit, according to the ambassador.

US to Split with UNESCO. The State Department announced this week that the United States would no longer be party to the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) after the end of 2018. Citing “anti-Israel bias,” Secretary Tillerson decided to downgrade the US position with the organization to nonmember observer status. The United States has long had issues with the organization, but the group’s decisions to admit Palestine as a member state in 2011 and to designate the old city of Hebron in the West Bank a Palestinian World Heritage Site this summer have particularly frustrated US and Israeli officials. Israel announced that it, too, will withdraw from the organization.

III. Judicial Branch

1) Supreme Court

International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) v. Trump. The Supreme Court this week dismissed one of the two previous cases against President Trump’s travel ban on the basis of it being “moot” at this point. The ban at issue expired at the end of September, so this was a way for the highest court to resist issuing a ruling that would serve as a potentially groundbreaking precedent for future cases.

Jesner v. Arab Bank. The Supreme Court also heard arguments for a case against a New York City branch of the Arab Bank. The large corporation is based in Jordan and operates in 30 other countries. Victims of violence before and during the Second Palestinian Intifada, from 1996 to 2005, have asked US courts to hold the New York branch of the bank liable for the attacks because it allegedly facilitated the conversion of millions of dollars into Israeli shekels and then helped distribute the money to members of Hamas and their families. The plaintiffs cite an obscure law from the 18th century, known as the Alien Tort Statute, as reason for holding the bank responsible. Despite the suspect legal merits of the case, many observers worry that a ruling against the bank could complicate relations with Jordan, which has long been a stable and reliable US ally in the region.

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