Congressional Update – Week Ending October 27, 2017

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Iran Ballistic Missiles and International Sanctions Enforcement Act. H.R. 1698 and the following three bills were considered in the House of Representatives chamber on October 25, originally under suspended rules, which require two thirds of the body to approve in order to pass the bill and limit the time of debate and the ability to amend the legislation. However, a roll call vote was requested for this legislation and the House formally adopted the bill the following day by a vote of 423-2. This legislation amends the Iran Sanctions Act of 1996 to provide for additional sanctions on Iran for its ballistic missile program. This bill now heads to the Senate for consideration by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC).

Hizballah International Financing Prevention Amendments Act. H.R. 3329 and the two following bills were all adopted under suspended rules. As detailed in a previous report, this legislation would amend the Hizballah International Financing Prevention Act of 2015 and the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 to expand sanctions on Hezbollah and entities that support it. This and the other bills will go on to be considered by the SFRC.

Sanctioning Hizballah’s Illicit Use of Civilians as Defenseless Shields Act. H.R. 3342, as its title suggests, levies sanctions on Hezbollah members who are deemed guilty of committing the war crime of using civilians as human shields in conflict situations. The applicable sanctions include the blocking of property that these individuals may possess in US jurisdiction and prohibitions on these individuals’ travel to the United States.

Urging the European Union to Designate Hezbollah as a Terrorist Organization. H. Res. 359 is a nonbinding resolution that simply expresses the sense of the House that the European Union should designate the Lebanese Hezbollah as a terrorist group its entirety and reverse its current practice of distinguishing between political and military wings of the group.

Interestingly, the House passed these measures targeting Lebanon’s Hezbollah at the same time that the general of the Lebanese Armed Forces, Joseph Aoun, was in Washington meeting with US officials in hopes of bolstering US support for Lebanon. General Aoun met with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, members of Congress, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford. Aoun was originally slated to attend General Dunford’s Chiefs of Defense (CHOD) conference—which brought together top military brass from 75 countries—but opted not to attend.

2) Hearings and Events

Countering Violent Extremism: Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. On October 23, the Hudson Institute hosted a multi-panel conference to critique the current state of counterterrorism efforts in the Middle East. It is important to note that a number of members of Congress spoke at the event. Except for one member, every Congressman in attendance was extremely critical of Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood. They were more sympathetic to allies in the region that are pushing back against these groups, like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Bahrain, and Israel.

Congressional speakers at the event included Republicans and Democrats. Indeed, the aggressive comments made about Qatar, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood transcended party lines. In attendance were Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ed Royce (R-California), Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee Mike McCaul (R-Texas), Rep. Brad Sherman (D-California), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Georgia), Rep. Robert Pittenger (R-North Carolina), Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pennsylvania), and Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas).

The President’s Iran Decision: Next Steps. On October 25, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa held a hearing to discuss President Trump’s refusal to certify the Iran nuclear deal and generally assess the strengths and weaknesses of the agreement. The witnesses called before the subcommittee were Drs. Olli Heinonen and Philip Gordon of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and the Council on Foreign Relations, respectively, and the Honorable Mark Wallace of United Against Nuclear Iran.

As is normally the case when discussing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Republicans on the committee criticized the deal while Democrats—even those who originally opposed the agreement or are hawkish toward Iran—urged the administration to remain in the deal and vigorously enforce its parameters. Heinonen and Wallace generally derided the deal as flawed, while Gordon recommended the United States is better off with the deal intact. However, all three recommended a number of steps for addressing Iran’s behavior, both under the JCPOA and in terms of countering its other problematic behavior.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House and Cabinet

Resuming US Refugee Admissions Program. On October 24, President Trump issued an executive order resuming the operations of the US Refugee Admissions Program that was halted for 120 days after he issued executive order 13780 in March. The point of the 120-day delay was to allow the administration to review the program and craft more enhanced vetting techniques for individuals entering the United States as refugees, the White House argued. Although the program was ordered to resume, the State Department said that an additional 90-day review period is necessary for assessing citizens coming from one of 11 countries and, during that period, refugees would only be granted admission on a case-by-case basis. The White House refused to name which 11 countries were included in the list, but recent reports state the countries are Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, North Korea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. In addition, family members of refugees who have previously been settled in the United States—known as “following-to-join”—will be refused admission, regardless of their nationality, until after some unannounced period of time in which the White House can establish new vetting procedures.

Secretary of Treasury Mnuchin Visits the Middle East. From October 25 to 30, Secretary of Treasury Steven Mnuchin will be visiting four Middle Eastern allies. The purpose of the trip, according to a Treasury Department readout, is to work with regional partners in a bilateral and multilateral fashion to combat terrorist financing, particularly through commemorating the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) that President Trump touted as one of the signature accomplishments from his trip to Riyadh earlier this year.

On the first day of the trip, Secretary Mnuchin visited Riyadh for bilateral discussions. While in Saudi Arabia, however, representatives from the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman, Kuwait, and Bahrain attended a meeting of the TFTC with Mnuchin and his Saudi counterparts. During this meeting, the group levied sanctions against 8 individuals and one entity they deemed to be leaders or financiers of the Islamic State in Yemen or al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Following his visit to Riyadh, Secretary Mnuchin traveled to Israel where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat. He also met separately with Minister of Finance Moshe Kahlon. The sides reiterated their mutual support and agreed to work together on anti-terrorism initiatives.

The secretary will travel to Dubai and Abu Dhabi after leaving Israel and will conclude the trip in Doha.

2) State Department

Secretary of State Tillerson Visits the Middle East. Like Mnuchin, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to the Middle East this week, albeit as part of a broader trip. Originally, the State Department only announced the secretary’s intention to visit Saudi Arabia and Qatar, but after he left Doha, he made unannounced visits to Iraq and Afghanistan (though the State Department updated its October 19 press release to reflect the two stops). In Riyadh, Tillerson participated in the inaugural cooperation council meeting with officials of Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Additionally, he spoke with Saudi officials about regional developments, particularly the ongoing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) crisis and the war in Yemen. While in Qatar, Tillerson met with Qatari officials to discuss the GCC rift as well as counterterrorism and other bilateral concerns.

Tillerson then visited Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi in Baghdad to discuss Iraq’s relations with its neighbors, particularly Iran, and the fallout from the recent referendum in Iraqi Kurdistan. Tillerson urged Abadi to side with neighboring Saudi Arabia in opposing Iran in the region. There was a hint of diplomatic disagreement on display on this leg of the secretary’s trip. Just before his arrival, Tillerson called on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs) in Iraq—a term given to any one of a number of mostly Shia fighting units—to disband and “go home.” Abadi contested the secretary’s remarks and issued a rebuke that should make it apparent to the administration that, though the PMF fighters are majority Shia, they are considered Iraqis first and foremost. These forces are seen by the majority Shia population in Iraq to be nothing more than “patriots,” as Abadi stated.

After traversing southwest Asia, Secretary Tillerson landed in Geneva where he discussed, among other things, the situation in Syria. He reiterated the US position that any political solution in Syria must be reached through the Geneva process being brokered by the United Nations, not the parallel process being facilitated by Russia and Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan.

Acting Assistant Secretary for Political-Military Affairs Visits Middle East. Tillerson and Mnuchin were not the only US officials to visit the region this week. Acting Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Tina Kaidanow also traveled to Qatar and Iraq, as well as Kuwait and Israel, and she will remain in the region until November 1. In her position, the acting assistant secretary serves as the primary liaison between the State and Defense departments. She is a leading official tasked with maintaining security relations with allies abroad and providing allies with security assistance and weapons transfers. In all four countries, she has met and will continue to meet with senior defense and security officials to discuss general security developments as well as topics unique to each nation.

Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs at ACW. On October 26, ACW hosted its second annual conference to assess the Trump Administration’s policies toward the Arab world thus far. For the keynote lunch address, the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Ambassador Joan Polaschik, presented the administration’s policy objectives in the Middle East, including its positions regarding the crises in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, defeating the Islamic State, and countering Iranian influence.

III. Judicial Branch

SCOTUS Tosses Second Travel Ban Challenge. On October 24, the US Supreme Court returned Trump v. Hawaii back to the Hawaii District Court and ordered it ruled “moot” since the 120-day ban that was the center of litigation lapsed on October 24. Like the previous case, the judges on the Supreme Court sought to dispose of the case without setting any precedent. It is likely the court will have to rule on the issue in the future since two federal judges have blocked parts of the president’s most recent immigration order.