Friday News Roundup — June 21st, 2019: Tensions in the Persian Gulf; Curbing Saudi Arms Sales; Reviving Advice and Consent; Plus News You May Have Missed

Happy Midsummer from Washington, DC! First, let’s tip our caps to the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team who are showing off their dominating skills in the group stage of the World Cup. Closer to home, the Trump campaign “launch” was presaged by a presidential promise of mass deportations of illegal immigrants. Across the aisle, issues of race and generational divisions have shaken up the narratives of the Democratic campaigns. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has revoked the Obama administration’s pollution-related rules on coal-fired power plants. This move was taken despite the EPA’s analysis showing that the air is getting dirtier and the number of possible premature deaths attributable to air pollution, could increase up to 1,400 per year.

This week, the Policy Team’s attention — and the attention of the nation — has been seized by increasing tensions with Iran. In this week’s roundup we cover topics related to the crisis in the Persian Gulf from a range of angles: Michael looks at U.S.-Iran tensions and the need for a diplomatic off-ramp. Highlighting the threat of escalation, Joshua provides a taxonomy of the ways that Iran could continue to escalate this crisis. Dan covers the Senate’s votes to push back against arms sales to the Gulf allies, reflecting not only anger with their actions, but also the administration’s attitude towards Congress. Chris examines the power of advice and consent in the wake of acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan’s withdrawal from the confirmation process.

As always, we wrap with a series of news stories that you may have missed.

Iran Crisis Is at a Simmer, Not a Rolling Boil

Michael Stecher

(An RQ-4 BAMS-D, Photo Credit: U.S. Navy/Erik Hildebrandt courtesy Northrop Grumman)

We noted in our roundup last week that we were watching the aftermath of suspicious explosions that damaged two oil tankers in the Straits of Hormuz, the narrow waterway that connects the Persian Gulf to the Indian Ocean. The Trump administration was quick to claim that Iran perpetrated an attack on the ships. In recent days, there have also been mortar attacks on American facilities in Iraq, likely launched by Iranian proxy forces, and a missile strike against a Saudi desalination plant, allegedly from Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen, where Iran and Saudi Arabia are fighting a horrific and indecisive proxy war. Yesterday, the heat on this crisis was turned up even higher when an Iranian surface-to-air missile battery shot down an unarmed American surveillance drone in international airspace. To this point, while violent and instrumental, this crisis is very much under control; the United States should take advantage of this and negotiate from a position of strength to end it.

I remember long debates in Washington about whether the Iranian leadership constituted a “rational actor”; if a mix of carrots and sticks could guide or alter regime behavior. Actions during this crisis over the last few weeks demonstrate that Iran is trying to delicately titrate the level of danger. Last month, Iranian forces are suspected of having struck four oil tankers in the Emirati port of Fujairah with limpet mines precisely placed by well-trained divers to disable but not destroy the ships. In last week’s attack, it is clear from the photos released by the Department of Defense that the explosives were placed above the waterline, where they would have less risk of sinking the vessels or potentially causing an oil spill.

Iran announced that they would begin stockpiling low-enriched uranium in excess of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Actions limits, an easily reversible move that seems designed to produce heat but not fire — as opposed to conducting enrichment activities in secret, which would be more effective for bomb-making, but more likely to cause a major international crisis when discovered. Yesterday, Iran shot down the Navy RQ-4 BAMS-D remotely piloted aircraft, an airframe their air defense forces are likely familiar with and is difficult to confuse with an armed, manned plane. If Iran wanted to kill American airmen or sailors or severely disrupt oil shipments in the Persian Gulf, they could; the fact that they are not should tell us that they are trying to communicate, not start a general war.

The new, enhanced U.S. sanctions has placed on Iran in the months since the Trump administration breached the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have clearly started to hit hard. Oil exports have fallen sharply and inflation could hit 40% this year while the Iranian economy is expected to shrink by 6%. Efforts by European countries to find a way around the sanctions have been extremely slow to develop and are unlikely to provide tangible benefits to the Iranian people any time soon. As Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney points out, there have been signals coming from Tehran for months that parts of the leadership cadre of the Islamic Republic are looking for a diplomatic off-ramp that will ease the sanctions. Dialing up the crisis atmosphere is probably an attempt to get Europeans who are uncomfortable with American hypocrisy on the Iran nuclear deal and countries like India, China, and Japan that would like to buy Iranian oil to put pressure on the Trump administration to begin negotiations.

The problem with all this is that the Trump administration does not seem to have a set of priorities for negotiations with Iran. President Trump says that he wants a “better deal” than the JCPOA, but has not specified what would make a deal better. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo laid out twelve “very basic requirements” for better relations between Iran and the United States, but several of them are so implausible and maximalist that they cannot realistically serve as a basis for conversation. The United States has a strong hand at the moment but cannot expect to dictate terms, so the administration should figure out what it wants from Iran, what it is willing to trade to quiet this crisis, and how to bring the international community along in the event that Iran refuses to de-escalate.

If you put enough American troops and Iranian forces in a small enough area and turn the heat up high enough, something will happen, people will make judgement calls, and suddenly we will be shooting at each other.

31 years ago, in a prior round of U.S.-Iranian tensions over shipping in the Persian Gulf, one of the greatest tragedies in the history of air travel took place. A U.S. Navy Cruiser, USS Vincennes, shot down an Iran Air Airbus A300 airliner, killing all 290 people aboard. In a time of high tensions, bad intelligence and high perceptions of threat led to a catastrophe. I have no doubt that an incident in which many fewer than 290 Americans were killed would make the pressure on President Trump to engage in military operations impossible to overcome [ed. note: it appears that President Trump backed off a plan to conduct military strikes last night]. If you put enough American troops and Iranian forces in a small enough area and turn the heat up high enough, something will happen, people will make judgement calls, and suddenly we will be shooting at each other. As the late Senator Fred Dalton Thompson once said in regard to a different naval crisis, “this business will get out of control.”

The Trump administration has the opportunity now to make sure that it does not. There are people in both Tehran and Washington who think that a short, sharp conflict would give them an opportunity to rewrite the regional balance of power to their own benefit or are ready to act forcefully without thinking about the consequences — what former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Andrew Exum calls the “Leeroy Jenkins School of International Politics.” They are wrong, so it is time for people who do not want another open-ended military conflict in the Middle East, a group that President Trump says includes himself, to integrate diplomacy to produce a good outcome for regional security.

Analyzing Iranian Unconventional Capabilities

Joshua Huminski

(A Well-Dressed Houthi Fighter, Photo Credit Mohammed Huwals, Agence France-Presse)

With Iran’s downing of an American drone, the prospect of escalation looms. Washington’s immediate response remains to be seen, but it raises the prospect of both conventional and unconventional conflict. While conventional conflict is widely appreciated and understood, the unconventional capability of Iran is less well-appreciated and, in all likelihood, are how this conflict may further escalate in the immediate future.

Iran’s unconventional capabilities can be classed into two large buckets — proxies and direct action/unconventional warfare. While what follows is not an exhaustive list, it is important to recognize that Tehran possesses alternative ways of escalating beyond pure conventional capabilities. Introducing enough doubt into the situation — akin to Russia’s “little green men” in Crimea — could serve as a means of retaliating without actually escalating to conventional conflict.

Proxy Forces


Chief among Iran’s proxies is Hezbollah. Active in Syria and Lebanon this Shiite militia is estimated to have over 25,000 active fighters and perhaps an additional 30,000 reservists. This militia is well equipped and well trained, though it has suffered considerable losses in Syria fighting ISIS in support of the Assad regime. It is not inconceivable that Tehran could use Hezbollah to increase pressure on Israel, and by extension the United States, in the event of a conflict with the United States.

Houthi Rebels in Yemen

Iran is currently also backing Houthi rebels in Yemen. These rebels are fighting Saudi-backed forces and have demonstrated the ability to attack beyond Yemen’s borders. On Thursday, Al Jazeera reported that these rebels struck a power station in Saudi Arabia with a “cruise missile.” Last week rebels also struck an airport in southern Saudi Arabia wounding 26 civilians. Here too it is possible to see a potential escalation of the long running conflict or Iran using the rebels to ratchet up pressure against Riyadh and by extension the United States.

Shiite Forces in Iraq

Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to this day, Iran aggressively backed southern-based Shiite militias. These militias still represent a considerable force in Iraq and while their interests recently aligned with Baghdad and Washington in fighting ISIS, they could easily serve as a spoiler or tool for Tehran to exert indirect pressure. Just this week rockets landed near an Exxon Mobil oil facility in Basra prompting the evacuation of some workers.

Direct Action/Unconventional Warfare


Tehran has a noted history of using terrorism to advance its interests or attack those of its adversaries. In the early 90s, Iran directed its proxy forces including Hezbollah to launch a campaign of terror attacks in Argentina. In 1992, 29 people were killed in an attack against the Israeli embassy in Argentina. This was followed by an attack in 1994 that killed 85 people and wounded another 300 at the Argentinian Israelite Mutual Association (AIMA) community center in Buenos Aires. In 2017, former President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was indicted for treason for allegedly covering up Iran’s involvement. Furthermore, in 2015, British security forces, acting on a tip from Israeli intelligence, seized Hezbollah explosive caches outside London. This raised questions about how Iranian proxies may have set up infrastructure in advance of potential future escalation. It again is not inconceivable that Iran could, using its proxies, attempt to exert pressure and/or distract from the current crisis by using terrorism to achieve its political aims.

Quds Force

Led by Qasem Soleimani and reporting to the Supreme Leader, Iran’s Quds Force represents the leading edge of Tehran’s unconventional capabilities. It trains, arms, and fights in a diverse number of theatres from Syria and Lebanon to Afghanistan and beyond. Indeed in 2011 the Department of Justice alleged that members of the Quds Force were behind a plot to assassinate Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. The plot also involved a conspiracy involving the Los Zetas drug cartel to move opium from the Middle East to Mexico, further highlighting the diversity of the Quds Force’s activities. While the Quds Force may wish to keep its involvement at arms distance, it will undoubtedly be involved in any unconventional campaign against the United States and its interests in the region.

Cyber Capabilities

Iran possesses potent cyber capabilities and has demonstrated an inclination towards using them. Tehran’s abilities have steadily improved from mere cyber vandalism to outright destructive attacks. In 2018, Iran launched a destructive cyberattack against Saudi Arabian oil facilities that resulted in the destruction of hard drives and the taking down of internal networks. This was not the first time that Iran launched a destructive attack — in 2012 Iran destroyed over 35,000 hard drives belonging to Saudi Aramco. Cyber attacks also provide a measure of distance and deniability in the event of escalation.

Taken together, Iran possesses a diverse set of unconventional capabilities to respond in-kind should conflict with the United States escalate. Indeed, the mining of the vessels are just one example of how Tehran could attempt to influence the political and strategic dynamic through unconventional and non-traditional means. It remains to be seen how this situation will play out, but it will be interesting to watch the shadow conflict that is undoubtedly underway at the moment.

Congress Challenges the Administration on Arms Sales to Gulf Allies

Dan Mahaffee

(Saudi Crown Prince Muhammaed bin Salman discusses arms sales with President Donald Trump, Photo Credit Reuters)

Even as tensions have increased with Iran, all is not well with our Middle Eastern allies, at least in the eyes of a bipartisan majority of Senators. In a series of votes on Thursday, Senators moved to block sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, sending a message to both nations, as well as the administration. The message was anger over their prosecution of the ongoing war in Yemen, as well as continued outrage over the Saudi murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. For the Trump Administration, it was another rebuke over the use of emergency powers to bypass Congressional authorities related to national security.

Back in April, Congress voted to end U.S. support for Saudi operations in Yemen, citing Congressional authorities under the War Powers Resolution. This was one of the more significant attempts by Congress to re-establish its national security prerogatives, but President Trump ultimately vetoed the measure. It is likely that Thursday’s Senate resolutions will face a similar fate. Even as the Democratic-led House is likely to support these measures, it appears that the measures do not enjoy veto-proof support in either chamber.

Beyond the Congressional opprobrium over Yemen — where the death toll is nearing 100,000 fatalities — and the Khashoggi murder (see coverage of a UN report on Saudi complicity below) and other human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, the tensions between the White House and Congress grew when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used emergency authorities to bypass Congressional objections to facilitate these weapons sales. Not only was the “emergency” nature of these measures debated — as some of the deals would include years’ long refits of existing equipment — but also the administration’s willingness to make an end-around Congress’s role in national security decision-making. Coming not long after President Trump’s emergency declaration to secure funding for barriers on the southern border, concerns among Members of Congress of all parties are growing over the state of the balance of powers between the branches.

For the Trump Administration, Congress’s concerns about the behavior of our Gulf Allies paled in comparison to the need to continue to confront the Iranian threat in the region. Supporting the Gulf Allies is a key aspect of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran, as well as a way to shore up support for other regional initiatives such as the administration’s “plan” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Regarding the White House’s attitude towards Congressional powers — from national security prerogatives to subpoena power to the power of the purse — their actions speak for themselves.

While some of the other measures related to Executive-Legislative relations are moving through the courts, the areas related to war powers have often been seen as a “political question” where the courts have held back or questioned the standing of Congressional challenges to Executive foreign policy and national security powers.

While the administration will probably be able to veto these measures, it is also the defense authorization “season” on Capitol Hill. The National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, is one of the most important, “must pass” legislation that Congress carries out each year. Given the Congressional anger towards both the White House and Gulf allies, a next step for Congress may be to attach measures blocking these arms sales to this years’ NDAA. The level of passion on this topic becomes clear when a close White House ally like Senator Lindsey Graham says,

“I’m voting with Senator [Rand] Paul and others today is to send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship…There is no amount of oil you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate.”

Whether or not it means that Congress is willing to prompt a fight with the administration on vital defense legislation is likely the next arena for this contretemps.

In the long-run, we must also consider, as my colleague Michael previously pointed out, what the future of the balance of powers is, if Congress’s only tool to check the Executive is to play chicken with the vital functions of government. After decades of letting the Executive Branch assert more and more power over a range of authorities, Congress finds its toolbox covered in dust, and, perhaps, worryingly sparse. In this highly-charged political environment, we are likely to see more “hostage-taking” at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.

“An Efficacious Source of Stability”

Chris Condon

(Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan in Japan, Photo Credit: Lisa Ferninando, Office of the Secretary of Defense)

The Department of Defense has recently been a source of trepidation within the Trump administration. When Secretary of Defense James Mattis resigned earlier this year, his resignation letter seemed to subtweet President Trump and challenge his worldview, which caused the president to expedite Mattis’ departure from office. In came Patrick Shanahan, tapped by the administration to serve as acting Secretary of Defense while Mattis’ successor was chosen. In May, Trump nominated him to become Secretary of Defense upon confirmation by the United States Senate, but following allegations of domestic violence involving Shanahan’s ex wife and son, President Trump announced that Shanahan had withdrawn his name from consideration, ending his confirmation process. Mark Esper, the current Secretary of the Army, will now serve as the new acting Secretary of Defense.

With tumult abound in the Pentagon, the Department of Defense has been run by someone not confirmed by the Senate for 171 days. As an agency that fulfills what is perhaps the most essential function of any government, one would expect that a fully vetted candidate should sit at the head of the Department of Defense. Without a Senate confirmation, however, the people cannot be assured of this fact, relying on a confident “trust me” from the White House. Many Americans are familiar with the phrase “advice and consent,” and will be able to recall that it is one of the functions of the U.S. Senate. With multiple “acting” cabinet officials serving important roles in the administration, now seems like a good time to dig more deeply into this function: what is the power of advice and consent? Where does it come from? Are there any limits on acting secretaries?

Article II of the U.S. Constitution outlines the powers and responsibilities of the presidency. One of these, described in Section Two, is the power to nominate “Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the Supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.” This clause also specifically prescribes that these nominees are only able to fill these offices with “the Advice and Consent of the Senate.” Alexander Hamilton evaluates this system in Federalist 76, providing his enthusiastic approval.

Hamilton’s argument sits on the classic foundation utilized by the Founders: a system of legislative advice and consent provides a check on presidential power and a balancing of responsibility between the executive and the legislature. Although the president is best suited to choose those best able to carry out the functions of the executive departments, if the power were vested solely in the chief executive, they could choose whomever they wanted (including nepotistic appointments of family, friends, or political patrons). If the legislature were to make appointments, the personal interests of representatives would compete in the people chosen to fill vacancies so much that posts would likely not be filled or those eventually chosen for the jobs would not be suited for the task. The constitutional system is an ingenious — and necessary — compromise. So what happens in the period before the president can make a nomination to fill a vacancy? What if a cabinet official resigns and there is no one to fill the position in the meantime?

Traditionally, the president has been entrusted with the power to choose a temporary steward of the office — an acting secretary — to exercise the duties of that office until an official appointment is made. The blueprint for this structure is the Federal Vacancies Reform Act of 1998, which imposed rules on who can serve as acting secretaries and for how long they may remain in office. By default, the “first assistant” to the vacated position becomes the acting officeholder; the president may then choose to designate another Senate-confirmed official to temporarily fill the position. Alternatively, they are allowed to choose an inferior officer from within that department who has served there for at least 90 days within the last 365, and who holds a position at or above the GS-15 level of the federal pay scale. The person nominated to permanently occupy the position cannot serve as acting secretary unless they were confirmed by the Senate previously to be that position’s first assistant (e.g. Patrick Shanahan as Deputy Secretary of Defense).

The time limit is particularly important in this scheme. If the vacancy in question occurs within 60 days of a presidential inauguration, the acting secretary may serve without Senate confirmation for a maximum of 300 days. Otherwise, they may only hold the position for 210 days; if the Senate rejects the president’s nominee to permanently fill the position, an extra 210 days is added onto this limit. This extension can occur twice, meaning that the longest an acting secretary can serve if all circumstances are correct is 630 days. This was not the case for acting Secretary Shanahan, however, whose ceiling would have been only 39 days from today. Whatever one thinks about the slate of rules Congress has imposed, it is clear that both the Founders and the modern Congress deemed the advice and consent rule to be of the utmost importance.

Without the voice of the legislature accounted for (as is the case with the appointment of an acting secretary), all Hamilton portends regarding the absence of legislative input is in force. The public’s confidence in the administration is undermined, and Congress has no say in the enforcement of the laws it writes. This allows for a dangerous concentration of power in the president and those he chooses to carry out his will, a fact that the authors of the Constitution were all too cognizant of. With this in mind, we must take heed of their instructions and ensure that those serving at the highest levels of the federal government are subject to legislative accountability.

News You May Have Missed

Saudis Responsible in Death of Khashoggi, UN Rules
Sarah Weintraub

Wednesday, UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Killing Agnes Callamard released a report blaming Saudi Arabia for the assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018. The report lays out a detailed timeline of the killing and the days surrounding, based on five months of investigations. Beyond faulting Saudi Arabia, the report calls for an investigation into the actions of the Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman. In November 2008, the CIA concluded that the crown prince ordered the murder of Khashoggi, but the report calls for further investigations into his involvement. The report calls for a suspension of the trials of 11 Saudi officials for their involvement in the assassination and for the UN to take over investigations and trials to ensure that justice is done. Khashoggi’s fiance, Hatice Cengiz, responded to this news with an Op-Ed in the New York Times on Wednesday, demanding that the United States take a more active role in investigating the murder and the crown prince’s potential involvement. Eight months after her fiance’s death, Cengiz laments, “no solid action has been taken yet.”

Ethiopian Citizens Left in the Dark
Stephanie Lizzo

Access to web and text messaging services were restored to Ethiopian citizens following a week-long internet blackout. Individuals lamented their limited access to social media, while firms decried the repercussions in local and international markets. Beyond personal inconveniences and economic implications, the blackout is reminiscent of the preceding government, which enforced a three-month internet shutdown in the midst of civil unrest. Although Prime Minister Abiy Ahmen has not released an official statement justifying the blackout, the hypothesized reason was to prevent cheating during secondary students’ final exams. However, many argue that the shutdown’s damage substantially outweighed any advantages of thwarting a few dishonest students. Ethiopian citizens hope that this infringement on their freedom of expression and their ability to access information is not an indication that their current leadership is following the (metaphorically) dark path which is all too familiar.

Scooch Over: The Global Population Is Set to Increase Further
Crystal Staebell

Here’s something to look forward to in 2027: a recent UN report states that is the year in which India will overtake China as the world’s most populous country. Currently, China’s population is 1.4 billion, with India close behind at 1.3 billion; their combined populations accounts for 37% of the global population. While China has been working to manage the risk of population decline by reversing the infamous One-Child Policy, India is rushing to issue population limits as resources and land are dwindling. The UN’s 2019 World Population Prospects report features more claustrophobia-inducing statistics, including that by 2050, the global population will rise to 9.7 billion, a massive spike in population from 1950, when the population was 2.6 billion.

Is Vaping Worse than Smoking? Nebraska Seems to Think So
Madison Howell

A high school in southeast Nebraska announced recently that it will begin randomly testing students for traces of nicotine. This change is due to the supposed increase of e-cigarettes on the school’s campus, such as vaping. In 2018, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention found that 3.05 million high school students and 570,000 middle school students had used e-cigarettes within 30 days. However, only students participating in extracurriculars will be tested. The administration plans to randomly select 20 to 25 students to test for nicotine, and if a student tests positive, he or she will be suspended from extracurricular activities. The policy is already approved by the local board of education, but the school fails to mention how it will handle students, usually seniors, that are 18 who can legally purchase tobacco products. Schools cannot dictate students’ legal activities after school hours, so this rule is a lawsuit waiting to happen.

Number of Displaced People Continues to Grow
Carlota Cumella de Montserrat

Over 70 million individuals have been displaced worldwide, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the highest number in the past 70 years. According to their report, this number is likely to increase even more in the next year due to the Venezuela crisis. In 2018, the daily average displacement was 37,000 people, that is 31 displacements every minute, which doubles the total from two decades ago. It is worth remembering that these figures take into account individuals that have fled war, conflict, or persecution, and are seeking international protection. Ethiopia, Syria, Palestine, Myanmar, Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of Congo are some of the most displaced nationalities. The need for the international community to find a safe home and resources for all of these people is urgent, as numbers continue to increase and entire generations are displaced from their homelands.

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