Congressional Update – Week Ending July 6, 2018

I. Congress

The Senate and House of Representatives had the week off for the Fourth of July holiday. Both chambers are expected back for legislative business on Monday, July 9.

1) Personnel

Senators Graham and Shaheen Make Unexpected Visit to Syria. A bipartisan congressional delegation arrived in Manbij in northeastern Syria on July 2 for an unexpected visit with the Manbij Military Council (MMC). Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) traveled to northern Syria to visit the US-backed Kurdish militia that is integral to providing security in Manbij, but which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan views as a major national security threat. Due to Turkey’s concerns and President Donald Trump’s disinterest in “state building” in Syria, the White House has considered the idea of withdrawing US troops from Syria which some fear will unleash violence and chaos as well as destabilize other areas in the country. Graham seemingly understood this, as he went on record telling the MMC that he would urge President Trump to leave US troops in place to ensure the safety of US Kurdish allies.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Shuffle at the NSC Brings New Faces to Middle East Team. The White House’s National Security Council (NSC) underwent some changes this week in the personnel department. According to one report, National Security Advisor John Bolton has overseen a pair of changes: the senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, Joel Rayburn, will be moving to the State Department and is expected to be replaced by Bob Greenway; and the senior Middle East advisor, Mike Bell, is also leaving the White House with no specific plans announced for his replacement. Both were holdovers from the NSC staff of Bolton’s predecessor, H.R. McMaster.

2) State Department

Trump Administration Pushes on with “Stronger” Iran Policy. This week, the Trump Administration offered deeper insight into its “maximum pressure” campaign against the ruling regime of Iran. Senior Policy Advisor to the Secretary of State and Director of Policy Planning Brian Hook held a press conference to further elaborate the administration’s policy goals to counter Tehran’s nefarious activities in the region. Hook spoke generally about the goals of the administration’s more aggressive posture toward Iran (covered here), but he offered some specifics on the White House’s approach. For example, Hook said the “new strategy is not about changing the regime, it is about changing the behavior of the leadership in Iran to comport with what the Iranian people really want them to do.” He added that the best way to influence the regime’s behavior is to put economic and political pressure on its leaders.

On the economic side, Hook announced that the administration will levy new sanctions on Iranian metal and car industries on August 4 and, over a month later, the US Treasury will “snap back” preexisting sanctions on Tehran’s banking and energy sectors. This pressure, Hook argued, will come to fruition when allied countries around the globe cut their imports of Iranian crude. He was careful to walk back the previous statement that oil imports from Iran should be reduced to zero barrels per day by November; otherwise, importers would risk being exposed to secondary sanctions. As a testament to the effectiveness of this strategy, Hook noted that more than 50 international businesses have already withdrawn from the Iranian economy and that he expected more to join the list because the Trump Administration is not willing to offer any exemptions or waivers to companies trying to remain in the Iranian market. In terms of applying maximum political pressure, Hook gave almost no specific strategies other than “to stand with the Iranian people, who are the longest suffering victims of the Iranian regime.” The State Department announced that Secretary Mike Pompeo will travel to the United Arab Emirates next week to help rally allies to support the renewed sanctions on Iran. Additionally, Brian Hook and other US government officials, like Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation Dr. Christopher A. Ford, will also be in the region soon for the same purpose.

Though Hook did not broach the subject in his press conference, it was reported this week that the Trump Administration is considering designating an arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). In addition to sanctions, an FTO exposes members of the group to criminal penalties, travel bans, and in some cases, allows the US government to freeze the organization’s assets in Washington’s jurisdiction. The move would be largely symbolic, however, as the IRGC has been considered a terrorist organization since the administration of President George W. Bush.

Many observers opine that the economic sanctions and potential FTO designation are not without risk to the United States, however. For example, a number of longtime national security and military officials have warned of potential blowback for US troops throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia if the United States followed through on its threats to designate the IRGC as an FTO. On the economic side, however, there are already tangible disadvantages to ramping up economic pressure on Tehran, especially as the November 6 deadline for oil-related sanctions draws nearer. As of July 5, oil was trading at $78 per barrel, according to a Bloomberg report—the highest in more than three years. The price of crude oil—and by correlation, the price of gasoline—stands to rise if one of the leading members of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries stops exporting and a shortage of crude oil availability grows. Further, if the Iranians act on their threat to close the Strait of Hormuz—through which 30 percent of all of the world’s seaborne-traded crude oil flows every year—world oil prices would jump substantially. This has already spurred Trump to turn to Iranian rival Saudi Arabia to increase productivity, a commitment the kingdom—which heavily depends on revenue from its oil exports and benefits from less availability and higher prices—has thus far been wary to embrace.

A crude oil shortage will hurt the US economy; American consumers, in particular, would be most hurt if oil prices continue to rise. Washington could see intensified trade wars in the secondary sanctions the administration has promised in November. At a time when the United States has a multi-front trade war on its hands, it has had trouble persuading other world oil consumers to cut down their imports from Iran. The European Union has been noncommittal on the issue while quasi-allies like Turkey and India have rejected the administration’s calls to stop importing Iranian oil. If India, Turkey, and others, like China, refuse to halt imports and get slapped with sanctions, one can expect them to take extraordinary measures to protect their economies as well as retaliate against the United States.

3) Department of Homeland Security

Nielsen Announces 18-Month Extension of TPS for Yemenis. On June 5, Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen announced that her department would be extending the temporary protected status (TPS) of some 1,200 Yemenis residing in the United States. While this is certainly good news for those Yemenis already under the TPS, Nielsen opted not to redesignate Yemenis as a group eligible to receive TPS. This semantic difference means that any Yemeni who fled the war in Yemen and moved to the United States since the last registration period ended in 2017 may not apply for TPS and could be forced to return to Yemen.

4) Other Trump Officials

Mark Green, Sam Brownback Visit Northern Iraq. US Agency for International Development Administrator Mark Green and Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback returned from a week-long trip to northern Iraq this week. They visited leaders of religious minority communities that had suffered at the hands of the so-called Islamic State’s brutal genocide campaign, like Chaldean Catholics and other Iraqi Christians, as well as the Yezidi community. The delegation also met with political leaders from Baghdad and Kurdistan to discuss plans to protect and rehabilitate these vulnerable communities.