Congressional Update – Week Ending March 2, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

H.R. 5117, H.R. 5126, and H.R. 5141. Two separate bills were introduced in the House of Representatives this week that do not directly apply to the Arab world, but that could indirectly affect how Arab states operate in the region. Representatives Charlie Crist (D-Florida) and Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana) introduced H.R. 5117, which gives the president the authority to craft a cooperation agreement with the government of Israel to jointly research and develop countermeasures to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or “drones.” Meanwhile, Florida Democratic Representative Stephanie Murphy worked with her fellow Floridian, Republican Brian Mast, to craft H.R. 5126, another bill aiding Israel. This bill allocates more funds to allow Israel to strengthen its missile defense systems. Both measures will go to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) for consideration. In addition, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa chair, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), introduced H.R. 5141, whose aim is to improve US security assistance to Israel and authorize even more aid.

H.R. 5132. The chair and ranking member of the HFAC teamed up to introduce the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Economic Exclusion Act that is intended to further penalize Iran’s most visible military outfits. Representatives Ed Royce (R-California) and Eliot Engel (D-New York) crafted this bill to allow for sanctions on any entity in which the IRGC owns stake of less than 50 percent. That precise language appears to be an effort to shore up loopholes that have allowed companies in which the IRGC has “passive, minority” stake in order to avoid sanctions. This has enabled the IRGC to maintain, if not solidify, the grip it has had on the Iranian economy since the United States and its allies started sanctioning Iran in 2006. This bill also seeks to amend previous sanctions legislation to lower the threshold that allows the US Treasury to sanction the IRGC or its financial supporters. The bill was referred to the HFAC for consideration.

J. Res. 54. Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) and Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) worked across the aisle with conservative Mike Lee (R-Utah) on one of the few issues on which the trio agrees: the US role in the Yemen war. The three introduced a joint resolution that would force their colleagues to vote either in favor of the United States’ role in Yemen, allowing the US military to continue aiding the Saudi-led coalition, or against US involvement in the country. If this resolution were to pass both chambers, the president would either veto it or be forced to cease any US military involvement in, or aid to, Yemen, except for cases where it is conducting operations against the al-Qaeda branch there. Though the Yemen war has arguably led to the worst humanitarian crisis in decades and is extremely unpopular with many lawmakers, this resolution will be difficult to pass. The White House and Department of Defense do not believe they need Congress’s permission to be involved in Yemen, so they will lobby hard against passing the resolution.

2) Hearings

Defense Challenges in the Middle East: Terrorism and Iran. On February 27, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing with General Joseph Votel, commander of the US Central Command (CENTCOM) that oversees military strategy in the Middle East. During his lengthy testimony, Votel talked about how terrorism from both non-state actors, like the so-called Islamic State, and state sponsors like Iran will remain a threat to peace and stability in the region. Votel’s talking points included pushing back against Iranian influence, but he also offered a pointed critique of Russia’s role in the region. In Syria, Votel argued that Russia is seeking to undermine US influence by playing both “arsonist and firefighter.” Additionally, the general explained how Moscow is seeking to surpass Washington’s influence in the region by selling cheaper weapons to Arab militaries with few preconditions on how they are used or the strength of the human rights record of the recipient. Though the Islamic State has been nearly defeated militarily, Votel’s remarks on Russia and Iran served to warn the committee that the United States and its allies still face serious threats to security.

Inadvertently, Votel set off a bit of a firestorm in the Gulf with his remarks about the ongoing GCC crisis. Votel was making the point that the Saudi-led bloc’s dispute with Qatar is serving as a distraction from the military campaign in Yemen. Due to an apparent translation error, Al Jazeera tweeted a misquoted statement, prompting CENTCOM to publicly dispute its reporting. The general manager of Al Jazeera then apologized for the confusion caused by the translation error—but not before millions saw the dustup.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Coons Gives Overview of US Foreign Policy. Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware) stepped away from the capitol briefly this week to discuss his recent travels to the Middle East and Europe, as well as to share his broader foreign policy vision for the United States. Though most of his remarks focused on the rivalry with Russia and China, as far as the Middle East is concerned, Coons said that US allies—Arab and non-Arab alike—are simply unsure about the United States’ long-term posture in the Middle East. The Kurds in Iraq and Syria are skeptical of US commitment under the Trump Administration, while Israel and Arab allies are in the dark about whether the United States will play a more forceful role in undermining Iranian influence in the region. Broadly, Senator Coons suggested that Congress act as a cudgel against President Trump’s isolationist tendencies to ensure that the United States maintains a Wilsonian foreign policy posture in the Middle East, and in the world more broadly.

Menendez Seeks Answers on Iran Sanctions. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s (SFRC) top Democrat, Senator Bob Menendez (New Jersey), penned a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin this week to denounce what he considers the Trump Administration’s reluctance to enforce sanctions mandated by the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. Though the Department of the Treasury has implemented parts of the sanctions set forth in the bill, Menendez, one of the leading Iran hawks on Capitol Hill, demanded that Tillerson and Mnuchin follow Congress’s orders and implement the sanctions in full.

Lawmakers, Executive Branch Officials Differ on War Powers. Ahead of the push to a vote on a resolution regarding US involvement in Yemen, initiated by Senators Sanders and Coons (see above), senior administration officials wrote to senators arguing that the president does not need congressional approval for the US military to be involved with the Saudi-led coalition. In the letter sent to all 100 senators, the Department of Defense’s counsel argued that it is within the president’s power to authorize military assistance to the Saudis, effectively pushing lawmakers to end their opposition. Because many GOP lawmakers are wary of crossing President Trump, this lobbying effort could likely kill any hopes of the joint resolution passing.

Rep. Engel Writes to Tillerson in Opposition to Gitmo. Representative Eliot Engel (D-New York) wrote a letter to Secretary Tillerson this week voicing his concerns about President Trump’s decision to send detained terrorist suspects to the US detention center at its naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. President Trump signed an executive order at the end of January ensuring the detention site would remain open. Engel stated that Guantanamo Bay is a danger to US national security due to its central role in terrorist propaganda, and he decried the administration’s decisions to dismantle the State Department unit tasked with resolving detainee issues and its refusal to repatriate a detainee who signed a plea agreement with the US government.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Talks Iran, GCC with Gulf Leaders. This week, President Trump phoned leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. He reportedly spoke to each about Iran’s belligerent actions in the region and the need to resolve the months-long crisis between the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. Trump also issued an ultimatum to the trio: mend the GCC rift or sacrifice a GCC summit planned for May at Camp David. Before that time, officials from each of the three states are expected to meet with Trump in Washington in an effort to help resolve the crisis.

Kushner under Scrutiny for Security Clearance, Possibly Targeted for Influence by Foreign Governments. This week, a number of reports surfaced regarding the status of Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner—who is responsible for a broad portfolio, including crafting a Middle East peace plan—and his security privileges in the White House. Kushner has been unable to secure a permanent top-secret security clearance because of lingering questions about his dealings with foreign officials. One report disclosed that Middle East allies Israel and the United Arab Emirates had separately conducted internal discussions about how to manipulate the inexperienced and debt-saddled aide. Though all signs indicate that Kushner has no plans to leave, his Middle East work could be hampered without access to top-secret information.

McMaster Reportedly on His Way Out. It was reported this week that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have reached a deal with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster to move the latter out of the White House and back into the Pentagon. Though the White House has denied the report, it has been well-chronicled that McMaster frequently clashes with the president and has sought to transition back to the military. McMaster is viewed as one who tempers the president’s volatility, so his departure could have a potentially adverse effect on the White House’s foreign policy.

2) Cabinet

Nikki Haley Responds to UNSC Vote. After Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolution regarding Iran this week, US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley responded with threats of unilateral action. The resolution would have condemned Iran for allowing its weapons to fall into the hands of the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Russia’s veto prompted Haley to declare that the United States and its allies would need to “take actions against Iran that the Russians cannot block.”

Sec. Rick Perry to Meet with Saudis about Nuclear Technology. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry is due in London on March 2 to meet with Saudi officials about possible cooperation in building a civilian nuclear program. A US-based company is bidding to supply the kingdom with what could potentially be 16 nuclear reactors for a civilian nuclear energy program, and in an effort to secure the contract, President Trump dispatched Perry to work out the details. US law stipulates that any US nuclear technology used in foreign nuclear power plants is subject to what is known as a “123 agreement” which outlines the parameters of how the technology is used. While Trump and his team see the potential contract as a boon for a waning nuclear industry, lawmakers—who have the ability to scuttle any 123 agreement—are skeptical of allowing the Saudis to secure an agreement without strict prohibitions on enriching uranium or reprocessing spent fuel. Both processes can be beneficial for producing nuclear power, but both can also be used to create nuclear weapons. At least one lawmaker has already stated he would seek to force a vote on any agreement signed between the Trump Administration and Saudi Arabia. The meeting will take place before Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is expected to visit Washington.