Washington Policy Weekly – November 9, 2018

I. Congress

Midterm Elections Held November 6. On Tuesday, November 6, 2018, millions of Americans cast their ballots for candidates running for public office from the local and state level up to the US Congress. While the final outcomes of many races are yet to be determined, it is a statistical certainty that January 2019 will see the House of Representatives led by Democrats while the Senate remains controlled by the Republican Party. Tuesday’s results will have domestic and international implications, and Washington’s posture toward the Arab world—and the Middle East more broadly—may reorient slightly as waves of new Democrats take their seats on Capitol Hill.

Three women of Arab decent were also elected to Congress this year, giving them the opportunity to weigh in on US foreign policy toward the Middle East from an Arab perspective. Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Donna Shalala will join a handful of Arab Americans as members of Congress, and Tlaib and Omar also represent the first Muslim women elected to the legislative body. It is noteworthy that the elections saw a huge uptick in Arab American and Muslim American candidates seeking office across the country.

1) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Call on Trump Administration to Condemn IS’s Targeting of Druze. This week, the Washington Post reported that a handful of Democratic House members sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging him and the Trump Administration to condemn a spate of attacks by the so-called Islamic State (IS) against Syria’s Druze communities. The administration has been tough on IS, but many are concerned that the administration speaks about IS attacks on Christian minorities in the region but that it neglects to support other vulnerable religious minorities with the same enthusiasm.

II. Executive Branch

Trump Administration Mobilizes as Iran Sanctions Are Reimposed. Despite evidence that Iran was, and continues to be, abiding by the terms of the landmark 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that compelled Tehran to rein in its nuclear weapons program in exchange for relief from crushing international sanctions, the Trump Administration reimposed the sanctions that had been lifted under the deal. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a number of interviews talking up the administration’s sanctions scheme and continued the effort up to the day sanctions were reimposed. During interviews with the BBC’s Persian language outfit, CBS’s Face the Nation, and Chris Wallace of Fox News Sunday, Pompeo discussed the newly imposed sanctions, the administration’s efforts to mobilize support for the sanctions among international partners and allies, and the White House’s reasoning behind offering waivers for a handful of countries to continue importing Iranian crude oil. In sum, Pompeo used his media appearances to reiterate the administration’s talking points that the Iranian regime gives the United States no choice but to levy sanctions against Tehran and that the regime there does not care about ordinary Iranians like the Trump Administration does. Ironically, a number of observers attest that renewed sanctions take a disproportionately tough toll on everyday Iranian citizens, and that these are the same people who are barred from entering the United States.

All of the interviewers asked Pompeo about Saudi Arabia, its role in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and the ongoing Riyadh-led war in Yemen. Curiously, when talking about the ongoing humanitarian conflict in Yemen, Pompeo told BBC Persian and Fox News that Iran was responsible for the Yemenis’ plight because it offers almost no humanitarian support to the people. However, serious observers of the Yemen war are unlikely to pin the blame on Tehran when the Saudi-led coalition and their Houthi rivals have both, at points, blockaded areas to prevent the importation of critical goods and essentially used starvation as a war tactic. It is believed that Iran’s limited presence in Yemen is almost certainly nefarious, but if the administration seeks to lay blame for the circumstances in Yemen solely at the feet of the Iranians, it is obfuscating the cause of the conflict there in a way that may further embolden Riyadh and its allies. When asked about US-Saudi relations amid the uproar over Khashoggi’s murder, Pompeo maintained the administration position that it is still seeking answers, but that Riyadh is a very valuable ally.

In addition to sitting down with media organizations, Pompeo held a joint press conference with Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin to speak about the more technical aspects of the new sanctions regime. Mnuchin announced that the administration would issue waivers for eight countries, including Iraq, that asked the White House for exemptions to continue importing Iranian crude oil. In addition, Mnuchin wrote an op-ed for the British Financial Times this week, illustrating the fact that despite Pompeo’s lofty rhetoric of getting allies to commit to the US strategy, administration officials are still trying to win over the support of the remaining parties of the JCPOA. Ambassador Nathan Sales was in the region trying to mobilize support at the same time that Mnuchin was appealing to Washington’s friends in Europe.

Finally, Special Envoy for Iran Brian Hook held two press conferences (see here and here) to answer questions regarding the reimposition of sanctions and the broader US strategy toward Iran. Like Mnuchin, Hook’s appearances seemed like an appeal from the Trump Administration to the rest of the international community. Hook issued several warnings to states that may be thinking of subverting Washington’s sanctions regime. It is noteworthy that US allies in Europe are currently developing a workaround known as a “special purpose vehicle” that allows them to continue trading with Tehran.

1) White House

Greenblatt Visits Israel. This week Jason Greenblatt, the White House’s chief negotiator on a peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, was in Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The trip was billed as Greenblatt’s latest effort to lay the groundwork for the administration’s peace deal proposal. The two spoke about developments in Gaza and the region more broadly and, amid reports that Israeli officials have been meeting with Arab and Muslim states that have typically proved hostile toward Israel, Greenblatt came out in support of a hypothetical “railway for peace” that traverses the Levant. Whether the release of the so-called “ultimate deal” is imminent remains an outstanding question despite Greenblatt’s efforts to lay the groundwork.

John Bolton Touts White House’s Pro-Israel Credentials at ZOA. This week, National Security Advisor John Bolton spoke at an event for the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), where he was being recognized as a defender of Israel. Bolton took to the podium to reiterate the usual administration lines: Israel is the sole democracy in the region and the Trump team is an unapologetic and unconditional supporter; Iran is the sole menace in the region and the regime must change its behavior; and the United States will no longer bow to international bureaucracies that allegedly undermine US sovereignty.

Trump Names New US Ambassador to Iraq. The Trump Administration announced this week that it would be appointing a new ambassador to Iraq. Ambassador Matthew Tueller, the current ambassador to Yemen, will be tapped to represent the United States in Baghdad. Despite being a sitting ambassador who was previously confirmed by the Senate, the White House must re-nominate Tueller to his new role and the Senate must vote in favor of confirming him. Some Iraqis have been dissatisfied with the current ambassador, Douglas Silliman, as well as the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk, because they purportedly are too soft on Iran’s presence in Iraq. Tueller, on the other hand, has taken a hard-line position against Iran having a presence in Yemen, so he would be a logical choice if the Trump Administration wants to quell Baghdad’s concerns.

2) State Department

Undersecretary Hale Discusses Syria with Turkish Officials. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale visited Turkey and met with its deputy foreign minister to discuss, among other things, US-Turkish joint patrols in Syria. Turkey and the United States have experienced a thawing of relations since the former released American pastor Andrew Brunson from prison and both sides appear eager to work together to realize their desired outcomes in Syria. However, Washington expects Turkey to be a greater ally in the fight against IS, whereas Ankara is preoccupied with its fight to undermine the strength of Syria’s Kurdish groups. Turkey has long held that the Syrian Kurdish group known as the People’s Protection Units (YPG) is an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which both Ankara and Washington consider a terrorist organization. The United States, on the other hand, does not consider the YPG to be a terrorist group and it has actually invested a great deal of money and training in the group and others that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces. Perhaps as an act of goodwill, the United States issued bounties for three PKK members. Now, one might expect Washington to push for Ankara to pare down its fight with the YPG in Syria and do more to help root out remaining pockets of IS.

Other Trump Administration officials also discussed US-Turkish relations in Syria and the broader situation there. Secretary of Defense James Mattis spoke with his Turkish counterpart about developments in Syria and the two countries’ mutual security concerns. Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey spoke to reporters about the different perspectives on the YPG and PKK that are held by the United States and Turkey, and he also outlined the US position regarding developments in Syria more broadly. Most notably, Jeffrey said Washington is urging Russia to relax its rules of engagement in Syria so as to allow Israel to more safely carry out operations aimed at uprooting the Iranian presence in Syria. Secretary Pompeo, though he did not speak with Turkish officials, also waded into the discussion regarding developments in Syria. He and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura spoke this week about the latter’s efforts to reach a political settlement to the conflict.

Undersecretary Thompson Addresses Amman Security Colloquium. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea Thompson spoke at Jordan’s annual Amman Security Colloquium this week to reiterate Washington’s long-standing commitment to creating a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East—despite the United States’ silence about the open secret of Israel’s well developed nuclear weapons program. Thompson also spoke about some regional states’ use of chemical weapons while her State Department colleague, Lisa Gordon-Hagerty, spoke on the technical aspects of nuclear technology.

3) Defense Department

Inspector General Releases Report About Anti-IS Operation. This week, Lead Inspector General Glenn Fine of the Defense Department made public his report to Congress about the United States’ anti-IS efforts known as Operation Inherent Resolve. The report notes that the operation has largely been successful but that IS fighters are a persistent threat and that eradicating IS from Iraq and Syria remains a daunting task. The most notable development outlined in the quarterly report was that the Defense Department intends to maintain a military presence in Syria until Iran and its proxies extricate themselves from Syrian territory. This is a markedly broader mandate than the one under which the Pentagon previously said it was operating.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments in Republic of Sudan v. Harrison. On November 7, the Supreme Court convened to hear oral arguments in the case of the Republic of Sudan v. Harrison. The appellate case stems from a lawsuit filed by surviving victims and the families of the victims who were killed when al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole off the coast of Yemen in October 2000. Interestingly, the Trump Administration waded into the fight, dispatching a Department of Justice attorney as an amicus curiae to argue in support of Khartoum. Additionally, both Secretary Pompeo and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan met with Sudanese officials this week and the lawsuit was reportedly a topic of discussion between the government officials. The case is the latest round of appeals after a court awarded the plaintiffs over $300 million in damages for Khartoum’s role in aiding the USS Cole bombers prior to the attack.