On the day of his Senate confirmation hearing, Rex Tillerson, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of state, is facing questions about a decade-old report that the company he led once did business with state sponsors of terrorism.

A U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission report from 2006 has resurfaced with claims the oil and gas giant ExxonMobil conducted business with Syria, Sudan and Iran. All three countries were under U.S. sanctions for sponsoring terrorism at the time of the sales, between 2003 and 2005.

In a written response to the SEC report, ExxonMobil said the sales to these countries were mainly through another company, Infineum, a Europe-based joint venture between ExxonMobil and fellow oil giant Shell.

Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Tillerson confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, January 11, 2017 (K. Gypson / VOA)

Protesters led by Greenpeace protest the Tillerson confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, January 11, 2017 (K. Gypson / VOA)

ExxonMobil said no U.S. employee was involved in the sales to the three countries. Tillerson was a senior executive during the time of the dealings, and he did not become CEO until 2006.

Tillerson speaks out

Tillerson was pressed on the matter this morning by U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. Menendez said that Exxon lobbied against the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability and Divestment Act and wanted to eliminate secondary sanctions, which make it difficult to do joint ventures like the ones Exxon undertook with Shell in Iran, Sudan and Syria.

Tillerson said he has never personally lobbied against sanctions, and to his knowledge, neither has Exxon. He indicated that his view of sanctions is complicated, however, and he does not always view them as a positive.

“Sanctions are an important and powerful tool, but designing poor sanctions and having ineffective sanctions can have a worse effect than having no sanctions at all,” he said.

Tillerson also pushed back against drawing conclusions about which countries he will favor as the top U.S. diplomat. He said that in his corporate life he worked for his shareholders, and as secretary of state he will work for the American people.

“My pivot now, if confirmed to be secretary of state, I will have one mission only and that is to represent the interest of the American people,” he said.

Various deals

The sales between 2003 and 2005 totaled $53.2 million to Iran, $600,000 to Sudan, and $1.1 million to Syria. Additionally, the chemical segment of Exxon sold polyethylene and polypropylene worth $67.7 million to Syria.

In its written response to the SEC inquiry, ExxonMobil stressed the small size of the deals compared to their global business, which totaled $371 billion in annual revenue at the time.

The company also said it didn’t alert the SEC to the sales at the time they occurred because the sales were both legal and relatively insignificant. ExxonMobil points out that Infineum is based in Europe and that no U.S. employees were involved.

“These are all legal activities complying with the sanctions at the time,” Alan Jeffers, a media manager at ExxonMobil, told the newspaper USA Today. “We didn’t feel they were material because of the size of the transactions.”

Meanwhile, anti-corruption group Global Witness is urging the Senate to ask Tillerson about what it calls “questionable deals” in Nigeria, Angola, Equatorial Guinea and Chad. It says ExxonMobil dealt with autocratic regimes that entrench their people in poverty.

The group also charges that ExxonMobil has led efforts to eliminate policies aimed at reducing corruption and increasing transparency. ExxonMobil denies wrongdoing.

Transitional. “With ethics reviews steamrolled, financial disclosures uncertified, FBI background checks incomplete, and nine confirmation hearings squeezed into three days, President-elect Donald Trump faces the very real possibility that few of his cabinet picks will be in place by the time he’s sworn in next Friday,” FP’s Molly O’Toole writes. The fun begins today with several hearings on the Hill for top Trump appointees in a three-day blitz that will see a total of nine hearings, a Trump press conference, and remarks delivered by national security advisor Michael Flynn and his incoming deputy, KT McFarland. FP will be all over it, so check back early and often…

Work it. A series of reports out Monday evening suggest the Trump team may ask Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work to stick around for several months after James Mattis is (presumably) confirmed to be the next Secretary of Defense. Work, like Mattis, is a retired Marine officer, and has been outgoing Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s point man for many of his most innovative technology modernizations programs. The leak comes amid ongoing speculation that there is growing tension between Mattis and Trump Tower over who will serve under him at the Pentagon, with the former Marine rejecting several names that have been floated to him.

Back to al Bab. American drones are again buzzing over Turkish forces and their Syrian rebel allies as they slog it out around the Islamic State-held city of al-Bab, in anticipation of a larger U.S. role in support the operation. After weeks of tension between Washington and Ankara, which saw U.S. support for the push dry up while Russian warplanes began supporting the Turks, there’s talk that American planes, equipment, and Special Operations Forces might again be part of the fight, the Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung and Missy Ryan report.

It won’t be easy, however. U.S. officials are concerned about the number of Russian and Turkish planes already in the sky around the city, and straightening out the logjam — especially given the reported Russian refusal to identify themselves when operating around U.S. aircraft — is a huge concern.

The crowded skies. “Rarely, if ever, do they respond verbally,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Charles Corcoran told the Wall Street Journal’s Michael M. Phillips and Gordon Lubold of the Russian pilots. “We don’t know what they can see or not see, and we don’t want them running into one of us.” It’s a problem throughout Syria, and there are about 50 to 75 coalition a day aircraft flying over Raqqa in close proximity to Russian planes.

But the Russians have frequently shadowed U.S. aircraft or come close to hitting them — and U.S. pilots think some of the near-misses have been because the Russians simply didn’t see the American planes. Russian planes also “plow through tightly controlled groupings of allied aircraft over Raqqa. Russian bombers, flying to Syria via Iran, have crossed Iraq and disrupted allied flight patterns over the battlefields of Mosul.”

On the ground. U.S. Special Operations Forces carried out an assault on ISIS leadership near the city of Deir al-Zour in Syria on Sunday, U.S. officials have confirmed, though few details have been made public. According to the site Deir al-Zour 24, the troops landed in helicopters, cut off a road, and killed and captured several ISIS fighters. The raid was nothing that hasn’t happened before, Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said Monday. “We’ve done them before and we’ll do them again,” he said, adding that reports of 25 ISIS fighters killed in the raid were too high. He declined to provide a number of his won, however.

Mosul. Davis also told reporters that ISIS fighters in Mosul have been staggered by U.S. airstrikes and the Iraqi ground assault. The militants “can’t respond to coordinated attacks,” and are having a hard time keeping up the pace of suicide bombers they had been throwing at the Iraqis. Since mid-October, the U.S.-led coalition has dropped 8,944 bombs on ISIS positions in Mosul, taking out 134 car bombs in the process. In contrast, as of Monday the coalition has dropped 1,542 bombs on Raqqa since Nov. 5.

Not impressed. Russian officials don’t appear impressed, however. Warplanes sent to Syria by the Kremlin have conducted 19,160 sorties and conducted 71,000 airstrikes since October 2015, claimed Chief of Russia’s General Staff Army General Valery Gerasimov Tuesday. According to the state-run media mouthpiece TASS, Gerasimov took a swipe at the U.S.-led coalition during his remarks, adding the Americans “have not achieved any significant success… At the same time, a large number of civilian deaths as well as Syrian government troops deaths has been recorded.”

Good morning and as always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley


Congressional Republican hawks like Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) have announced their intention to introduce new sanctions against Russia and joined Democrats in a call for an investigation into allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But USA Today reports that Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway isn’t a fan of either proposal. In reference to calls by suggesting that Congress launch a bipartisan investigation of Russian hacking, Conway painted the effort as a partisan veneer for post-election sour grapes. She also questioned whether additional sanctions against Russia were necessary, describing President Obama’s ejection of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. as exceedingly harsh.


Monday was a big day for sanctions officials, who dropped a host of new restrictions on individuals in Russia and the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

The Washington Post reports that President Obama topped off the list of Russian individuals sanctioned under the Magnitsky Act with five new names. The act allows the president to sanction Russians involved in corruption related to the death of Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky and broader human rights abuses. Obama sanctioned an official from Russia’s Investigative Committee, citing his participation in a coverup of Magnitsky’s death in prison, as well as two Russians suspected of involvement in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko.

On the terrorism end of sanctions, the State Department added two members of Hezbollah, Ali Damush and Mustafa Mughniyeh, to the list of Specially Designated Global Terrorists. The State Department describes Damush as an aide to Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah and in charge of the group’s arm in charge of carrying out terrorist operations abroad. Mughniyeh is the nephew of Imad Mughniyeh, the late senior official in the Lebanese terror group accused of carrying out the 1983 U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut. Mustada, according to the sanctions announcement, is in charge of Hezbollah operations in the Golan Heights.


There’s been another incident in the tense game of intimidation under way in the Persian Gulf between the U.S. and Iran. CNN reports that the U.S. destroyer the USS Mahan fired warning shots at five vessels from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Pentagon spokesman said the boats closed to within 900 yards of the Mahan and ignored multiple warnings in the form of radio commands, sirens, and smoke grenades, failing to halt until the Mahan fired a warning shot burst from a .50 caliber machine gun.

Iran also appears headed towards more confrontation with the U.S. through its missile program. Reuters reports that legislators in Tehran added an extra five percent to the country’s defense budget, earmarking more funds for the country’s ballistic missile program. American officials have argued that Iran’s ballistic missile programs are in violation of existing U.N. Security Council sanctions on the country, although its allies in Russia have pushed back against the claim. Regardless, Iran carried out a number of ballistic missile tests since 2015 and plans to expand its program with a plan for development that stretches into 2021.


Pakistan admitted it has a submarine-launched cruise missile program, Defense News reports. The revelation came by way of a press release from the Pakistani military saying it had carried out a test of the system in the Indian Ocean at some indeterminate point in time. The missile, Babur 3, a submarine-launched variant of its land-based cousin, the Babur-2 and is likely fired from a Pakistani Agosta-90B submarine.

Photo Credit: NAZEER AL-KHATIB/AFP/Getty Images