Trump’s Parting Gift: No Diplomacy with Iran

On October 28, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) published a report detailing how the Trump Administration was accelerating action in favor of Israel and against Iran, with the aim of circumscribing the ability of a possible Joe Biden administration to reverse course and chart a new path. Now, though election results remain uncertified, a presumptive Biden win has initiated a mad dash by Iran hawks in the Trump Administration to “flood” Tehran with sanctions between now and what would be Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021.

The special representative for both Iran and Venezuela, Elliott Abrams, traveled to Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) this week to coordinate these efforts with some of the region’s staunchest opponents of Iran. According to one report, Israeli diplomatic and security officials are actively supporting the initiative, urging the administration to apply a sanctions regime on non-nuclear-related activities like Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Abrams is happy to oblige, reportedly saying that the administration wants to levy new sanctions on Iran every week until January 20. The Treasury Department made good on that objective this week, blacklisting six entities and four individuals for their roles in facilitating Tehran’s procurement of electronic components.

The targeting of non-nuclear-related activities is a crucial component of the Trump Administration’s lame-duck strategy. It is instructive to remember that advisors inside and outside the Trump Administration were pleased  with President Donald Trump’s reversal of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA); moreover, most do not want to see any diplomatic overtures to Tehran at all. If that is the goal, it makes sense to the Trump Administration to complicate US-Iran relations by applying sanctions that would not immediately be dropped if Washington reentered the JCPOA and upheld its commitments. Already, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made clear that any new US policy should be predicated on not only returning to the JCPOA, but also compensating Tehran for Washington’s failure to uphold the deal over the last nearly four years.

Relaxing sanctions and unfreezing Iranian assets related to Tehran’s nuclear program is perhaps doable for the incoming Biden Administration, but even as justified as such a policy might be, considering US negligence in upholding the terms of the nuclear deal, it will cost precious political capital. One can think back just a few years to remember how readily the “barrels of cash” epithet was used to criticize President Barack Obama for simply unfreezing money that belonged to Tehran. Iran hawks in the current administration understand the political haul it would be for a President Biden to reverse simply the nuclear-related sanctions. The idea, then, is to add sanctions that apply to elements not covered by the JCPOA, including Iran’s ballistic missile program, its support for terrorist groups, and its human rights abuses. Even those who believe the United States was wrong to back out of the JCPOA agree that Tehran has a troubling record in these other areas. By stacking up sanctions now, they are betting that Joe Biden would not have the appetite to revoke sanctions that target such activities. If Iran’s Rouhani would like the next US administration “to compensate for past mistakes” and include the relaxing of non-nuclear sanctions, and if Biden does not accede, then US-Iran diplomacy could be dead on arrival.

To further tie the Biden Administration’s hands, the Trump team is looking to warp expectations of Gulf Arab states by promising billions of dollars in advanced weaponry. The Trump Administration reportedly informally notified members of Congress of its intention to approve a nearly $3 billion sale of armed unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, to the United Arab Emirates. A later State Department press release revised that number up to $23.37 billion, including the drones, F-35 fighter jets, and billions of dollars’ worth of munitions. Agreements like these take years to fulfill, but undertaking them before the end of Trump’s lone term in office puts the onus on Biden to determine whether or not to uphold them. Further, if Biden were to revisit the deals, this would likely agitate Gulf Arab states against any Iran diplomacy, much like their attitude during the Obama Administration.

Iran was already slated to be one of the toughest foreign policy issues facing the next administration, but it will only grow tougher as the outgoing administration tries its hardest to obstruct any potential diplomatic paths.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

US-Israel Common Defense Authorization Act. This week, Reps. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Brian Mast (R-Florida) formally introduced legislation to provide Israel with bombs known as “bunker busters.” H.R. 8733, as detailed in a previous ACW report, is marketed as an effort to protect both the United States and Israel from the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran. Essentially, the legislation would allow a president to supply Israel with bombs capable of destroying an underground nuclear weapons facility in case Israel felt it needed to take such a preemptive action.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: An Update. On November 10, the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission held a virtual briefing for Saudi human rights activists and experts to update lawmakers on the state of human rights in the kingdom. The witnesses—including Lina al-Hathloul, Safa Al Ahmad, Bethany Alhaidari, Sarah Leah Whitson, and Seth Binder—painted a bleak picture. Despite the reforms that Riyadh has showcased under the rule of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), the witnesses argued that there has been little meaningful change. Instead, the reforms that have been enacted are cosmetic and are intended to allow MbS to maintain an iron grip on the kingdom while giving him the veneer of modernity and moderation in front of the international community.

Because the reforms have not been implemented in an honest effort to better human rights in the kingdom, the witnesses urged the international community, and the United States specifically, to leverage influence to ensure deeper, more lasting reform in Saudi Arabia. In doing so, the witnesses argued that the United States and others should boycott Riyadh’s hosting of the upcoming G20 summit until women’s rights activists—like al-Hathloul’s sister Loujain and others—are freed from prison. Moving forward, several witnesses also urged members of Congress to continue pressuring Saudi Arabia through legislation and resolutions in order to achieve policies including ending US support for Riyadh’s war on Yemen, halting arms sales and deployment of US troops to Saudi Arabia, and securing the release of the US Director of National Intelligence’s report on the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They recommended that once President-elect Joe Biden is inaugurated in January 2021, he and Democrats in Congress should move quickly to pass legislation to recalibrate US-Saudi relations and incentivize true human rights reform in the kingdom.

3) Personnel and Correspondence 

Senators Call on Secretary Pompeo to Enforce Libya Arms Embargo. On November 10th, Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the Trump Administration to do more to ensure that arms do not continue to flow to warring sides in Libya. The senators asked the secretary to levy sanctions against any actors that violate the UN arms embargo on Libya. While they mentioned Russia, Turkey, the UAE, and Jordan as countries actively violating the embargo, they singled-out the UAE in particular, decrying its material support for Libyan General Khalifa Haftar. Indeed, they asked that State investigate Abu Dhabi’s arming of Haftar and determine if such support precludes the UAE from receiving future US arms sales.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Ambassador Jeffrey Retires, Ambassador Sales Takes over as Envoy to Defeat the Islamic State. Ambassador James Jeffrey, the Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, is retiring from his positions by the end of this month. Jeffrey has been among the most visible diplomats in the Trump Administration in trying to coordinate efforts to end the fighting in Syria. Ambassador Nathan Sales, the current Coordinator for Counterterrorism at State, will fill Jeffrey’s role as the Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.

State Levies New Sanctions on the Assad Regime, Lebanon’s Bassil. On November 9th, the State Department announced that it teamed up with the Treasury Department to impose new sanctions against 19 Syrian individuals and entities on the five-year anniversary of Bashar al-Assad’s attack on civilians in Douma, Syria. The sanctions, instituted under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and other authorities, target new members of the Syrian parliament, individuals and entities tied to the Syrian government, and even military officials.

The State Department also announced that it would blacklist Gebran Bassil, the former Lebanese foreign minister and current head of the Free Patriotic Movement political party. Bassil, who is also the son-in-law of President Michel Aoun, is being sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act for his role in corruption in Lebanon. It is also clear that the designation is intended to fracture Bassil’s closeness with Hezbollah and prevent the latter from joining any new Lebanese government.

US, Kuwait Undertake Joint Dialogue before Pompeo Travels to the Middle East. This week, the United States and Kuwait launched their fourth Strategic Dialogue, albeit in a virtual fashion this year. The dialogue will include two weeks of virtual bilateral meetings on topics such as politics, human rights, development, defense, trade, and security. At the end of the dialogue, Secretary Pompeo will meet with Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Ahmed Nasser Al-Mohamed Al Sabah in Washington.

Secretary Pompeo will be traveling to the Middle East beforehand and returning to Washington only one day prior to that meeting with Kuwait’s top diplomat. Pompeo will be visiting Turkey, though he will only visit Istanbul to discuss religious freedom in the country. Pompeo will later travel through Israel, the UAE, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to discuss regional security, Gulf unity, and countering Iran.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Out as Pentagon Chief. Days after President Trump appeared to lose his bid for reelection, he announced on Twitter that he was firing Secretary of Defense Mark Esper and elevating Christopher Miller, the current director of the National Counterterrorism Center, to serve as acting secretary. Esper had recently been conducting diplomacy with Israel on behalf of the Trump Administration to ensure that the United States helps Israel maintain its qualitative military edge in the region. Esper’s departure sparked an exodus of other top Pentagon officials, including those who oversaw policy planning and intelligence. The last 10 weeks of the Trump Administration will ensure that hard-liners staff the upper positions of the Department of Defense and maybe even a “yes man,” as Esper described in one of his last interviews, spurring fears among many about what Trump could try to accomplish in such a short time.

III. Judicial Branch

Haftar’s US Assets Targeted in Lawsuits. General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army, has been the target of multiple lawsuits for some time now. The Wall Street Journal detailed this week how plaintiffs in those suits against Haftar are looking to wrestle compensation for the families of his alleged victims. Haftar and his adult sons have reportedly amassed roughly $8 million in assets in the state of Virginia and, since Haftar himself is a dual US-Libyan citizen, this makes him uniquely exposed to the US judicial system. However, in previous court filings, his lawyers have argued that he has immunity as a representative of a foreign government, though the judge in the case asked for the State Department to issue a determination on that claim.11