Congressional Update – Week Ending September 14, 2018

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Iranian Proxies Terrorist Sanctions Act. This week, a cadre of GOP senators introduced S. 3431 to place pressure on Iraqi militias that are supported by Iran. The bill seeks to explicitly target two militias, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Harakat Hizballah al-Nujaba. The former, in particular, has a popular political arm, but the legislation makes no such differentiation; therefore, if the bill passes, Washington could end up sanctioning a portion of a new Iraqi government at a critical juncture in US-Iraqi relations. The bill will head to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for consideration.

Iran Payments Accountability Act of 2018. In an effort to address Iranian influence elsewhere in the region, Rep. Mike Bishop (R-Michigan) introduced H.R. 6774, which mandates that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) provide a report on whether Iran used any money freed by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to sponsor foreign terrorist organizations. Bishop’s bill specifically names the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Palestinian Hamas, and Lebanese Hezbollah as the designated terrorist groups for the DNI’s reporting. This bill will go to the House Foreign Affairs Committee for consideration.

United States-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act. On September 12, the House joined the Senate in passing S. 2497, a bill that allows the United States to provide Israel with precision-guided missiles (a.k.a. “smart bombs”) in addition to other security assistance. Amended to honor outgoing Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida), the soon-to-be law also lays out other areas of security cooperation between the United States and Israel. The sale of these missiles could embolden Israel to take more action against Iranian positions in neighboring Syria or to strike at Hezbollah in Lebanon.

2) Correspondence and Personnel

Senator Kaine Puts Hold on Trump’s Nominee to Head Middle East Bureau at State. As a show of protest, Virginia’s junior Democratic senator, Tim Kaine, is reportedly slow-walking President Donald Trump’s nominee to lead the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. Kaine has been one of the most outspoken critics of what he sees as presidential overreach when it comes to waging wars not explicitly authorized by Congress, which is what prompted his move against David Schenker, the president’s nominee. Kaine is still frustrated by the administration’s inability or unwillingness to provide the legal justification for two strikes that it ordered against Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. After two of Assad’s chemical weapons attacks in two consecutive years, Trump ordered modest but kinetic action be taken. Kaine and his allies believe that while the strikes may have been warranted, lawmakers did not give express consent as mandated by the Constitution. Though Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has reached out to the senator repeatedly, there is little indication that Kaine is ready to relent, especially as the Pentagon prepares strike options for retaliation if Assad uses chemical weapons in his regime’s looming assault on Idlib province.

Sens. Shaheen and Young Pen Op-Ed on Yemen War. A familiar duo in the fight to reorient US policy toward Yemen teamed up once more on the pages of the Washington Post, writing a joint op-ed outlining how Washington could help realize an end to the devastating war in Yemen. The two have been active in the debate over US involvement in the Yemen war. They represent a more pragmatic camp in Congress that believes doing nothing is not an option—yet at the same time, forcing the administration’s hand and revoking its support for the Saudi coalition would be a step too far. It was this middle ground they hoped to achieve when they successfully included a reporting requirement in the fiscal year 2019 defense authorization bill that passed last June. The language mandates that the secretary of state certify that the coalition is taking all appropriate steps to realize a political resolution to the fighting and pursuing the utmost care to avoid civilian casualties during operations. Proponents of withdrawing US support, however, fear that the certification is rather pointless because the administration simply has to issue the report. They would also have little recourse even if Congress disagrees. As detailed in the next section (see “Pompeo Certifies … Mattis Concurs” below), these fears are perhaps warranted.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Officially Reprograms Money Originally Designated for East Jerusalem Hospitals. Last week’s Congressional Update noted that the Trump Administration was seriously considering cutting even more funding for Palestinian humanitarian projects. On September 8, it was reported that the White House had officially declared its intent to reprogram $25 million away from a network of six hospitals that serve Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. This is yet another action by the Trump Administration which many Palestinians view as telling them to “submit or starve.” The president’s son-in-law and top advisor on the purported peace plan, Jared Kushner, told reporters this week, however, that he did not think moves such as this will harm prospects for peace.

2) State Department

The Administration Notifies PLO of Office Closure. The State Department formally announced a decision to close down the Washington, DC office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Through a bill passed in 1987, Congress prohibited the PLO from having any representation in Washington as it was considered a terrorist organization at the time. Since then, however, developments have led Congress to allow presidents to waive that provision since the PLO’s General Delegation has effectively acted as the Palestinian embassy in the United States. Then the 114th Congress added another condition: the president could allow a PLO office to operate in Washington only if his administration could certify that the Palestinians had not taken any actions to initiate or support an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Lately, the United States and Israel have been especially concerned about “Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel” by the ICC.

Pompeo Certifies KSA, UAE Actions in Yemen; Mattis Concurs. This week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo formally certified to Congress that the Saudi- and Emirati-led coalition fighting to wrest control of key areas of Yemen away from Houthi rebels is taking meaningful steps to reduce the number of civilian casualties resulting from its operations. According to the report that Pompeo had to submit to lawmakers—pursuant to a provision in the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act—the secretary believes that Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and their partners are doing everything they can to bring about a political solution to the war, and taking every precaution to minimize the number of civilians harmed by the fighting.

Delegation Visits Bahrain, Kuwait, and UAE. Special Envoy to the Gulf Gen. Anthony Zinni led high-ranking US officials on a three-capital tour of the Gulf this week. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Arabian Gulf Affairs Tim Lenderking and Director for Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council Kirsten Fontenrose joined Zinni to visit Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Kuwait City in order to meet leading officials and discuss security issues as well as the ongoing split between Gulf Cooperation Council states. Interestingly, Zinni has been the point person for Trump’s “Arab NATO” dream, so he likely spoke about joint Arab security projects with the leaders of each state.

3) Defense Department

Pentagon Undertakes Phase Three of Operation Roundup. The Department of Defense announced this week that its security partners in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), would initiate phase three of “Operation Roundup,” which is purportedly the final phase of the anti-Islamic State (IS) operation in Syria. With some 14,000-15,000 IS fighters remaining in Syria—4,000-6,000 of whom are in US operation zones—this last phase can be expected to last several months, if not a year.

4) Department of Energy

Secretary Perry Meets with Saudi Energy Minister in Washington. This week, the senior officials responsible for overseeing government energy portfolios for the United States and Saudi Arabia held discussions about cooperation in gas and oil production. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry met with his Saudi counterpart, Khalid Al Falih, to discuss oil output as the deadline for US sanctions on Iran’s petroleum exports looms and the global energy market grows increasingly worried about supply.

5) Treasury Department

US Treasury Sanctions Libyan Militia Leader Vying for Control over Key Oil Reserve. The Treasury Department placed Ibrahim Jadhran, former leader of the self-designated Petroleum Facilities Guard, on an extensive sanctions list. Jadhran and his armed followers have repeatedly carried out attacks on two of Libya’s most lucrative oil ports—dubbed the “oil crescent”—in the years since the Libyan National Army of General Khalifa Haftar wrested control of the oil hubs from militiamen. Another attempt by Jadhran to take back control of the oil crescent in June resulted in $1.4 billion in lost profits for the already struggling Libyan economy, according to the Treasury’s press release. Because such attacks prove ruinous for an already chaotic political and economic situation in Libya, the United States and the United Nations decided to levy sanctions against Jadhran to serve as a deterrent for other armed groups. Jadhran will have all assets in US jurisdiction frozen; in addition, he is barred from traveling to the United States.