After Iran, Saudi Arabia Faces Scrutiny in Biden’s Washington

As was demonstrated in Arab Center Washington DC’s (ACW) last report, President Joe Biden has to deal with a divided Washington when it comes to US policy toward Iran. This week proved that Iran’s chief rival across the Gulf, Saudi Araabia, is also not immune to intense scrutiny on Capitol Hill and elsewhere in Washington. After the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a report implicating high-ranking Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), in the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, lawmakers were explicit in their calls to hold MbS and the Saudi government accountable for the reprehensible act.

Multiple lawmakers submitted bills and resolutions explicitly condemning Riyadh and the crown prince while calling for major shifts in US policy toward the kingdom. For instance, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Virginia) reintroduced his Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act, recorded as H.R. 1392, in order to unequivocally block the US government from providing Saudi Arabia with defense equipment for 120 days after the bill becomes law. President Biden has already said his administration will freeze the sale and transfer of offensive weaponry to Riyadh. This bill, should it become law, would halt the sale and transfer of all US arms and defense equipment to Saudi Arabia until the president could certify that the kingdom has not unjustly detained or imprisoned US citizens or legal residents and has not participated in the forced repatriation or torture of dissidents or detainees. The bill also contains requirements that would mandate the administration to provide Congress with reports detailing any initiatives of Saudi government officials to intimidate or harass individuals within the United States and if any efforts were made to warn journalist Jamal Khashoggi of threats to his life (as necessitated under Intelligence Community Directive 191).

In a similar, albeit not legally binding, effort, Rep. David Trone (D-Maryland) introduced H. Res. 175 that calls for an end to all arms transfers to Riyadh until certain other conditions are met. According to the resolution, those conditions can only be fulfilled when Saudi Arabia demonstrates true accountability for Khashoggi’s murder, ends its practice of harassing or surveilling individuals, releases prisoners jailed for what are essentially acts of political expression, and ends its war in Yemen. Interestingly, the resolution also includes a provision that calls on the US government to pressure Saudi Arabia to sign what is called a “123 agreement” for developing nuclear energy programs by suspending previous authorizations—known as 810 authorizations—and other cooperation agreements.

Other lawmakers went further, with Democratic Reps. Tom Malinowski (New Jersey) and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota) offering legislation that would target MbS personally for sanctions stemming from his likely approval of Khashoggi’s murder. The two bills vary greatly in their ramifications, but the fact that Omar, who is comfortable challenging traditional foreign policy dogma, and Malinowski, who cut his teeth within US foreign policy institutions, can agree that MbS must pay a price for his role in the murder does not bode well for the young ruler-to-be. Rep. Omar’s legislation (H.R. 1511) and Malinowski’s bill (H.R. 1464) would both strip the crown prince of his ability to secure a visa to travel to the United States. However, Omar goes farther, proposing that the US government also block all transactions with the crown prince in the United States or between him and US persons. Malinowski, now a high-ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is in a much better position to pass his bill through the House, although it is uncertain whether the Senate would then pass such legislation. Ironically, Malinowski himself inadvertently admitted that his legislation is not necessary, considering that current US law says the secretary of state should observe a mandatory visa ban for MbS for engaging in a gross abuse of human rights.

Unlike the last four years, however, the Saudi government and royal family are less likely to find refuge behind the shield of the Oval Office. Already President Biden has expressed a desire to fundamentally revisit the US-Saudi relationship and, in response to the release of the ODNI report, his administration has called on Riyadh to disband the Rapid Intervention Force that was sanctioned for Khashoggi’s murder. Confirmation hearings with a pair of Biden’s top foreign policy hands only clarified this desire. During their confirmation hearings before Senate committees, Wendy Sherman and Colin Kahl, who were auditioning for the number two and number three positions at the Departments of State and Defense, respectively, expressed their commitment to seeing President Biden’s desire to recalculate US-Saudi relations. Many in Washington are skeptical that Biden, perceived as a “small-‘c’ conservative” who has demonstrated his unwillingness to drastically depart from traditional US foreign policy, will truly usher in a fundamental change in US-Saudi relations. Nevertheless, it is clear that the unconditional support that Riyadh enjoyed over the last four years will be replaced by policy that keeps the regime in Saudi Arabia at arm’s length.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Establishing the Senate Human Rights Commission. A bipartisan group of senators introduced S. Res. 80 in an effort to establish a Senate Human Rights Commission. As has been demonstrated during the last few Congresses and presidential administrations, human rights are not always thoroughly considered when formulating US foreign policy. If these senators succeed and the commission is established, Congress’s upper chamber could have an even greater role in ensuring that human rights are a linchpin of US foreign policy, which could potentially prove important for US engagement with the Arab world.

No Funds to Rejoin JCPOA. Rep. Andy Barr (R-Kentucky) introduced H.R. 1479 to prohibit federal spending to support the United States in rejoining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Though the text has not been released, congressional Republicans have been vocal in their opposition to rejoining the deal or relaxing sanctions on Tehran, so this bill will likely target federal funds used for either of those actions.

Repeal the Authorizations for Use of Military Force against Iraq. Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), Todd Young (R-Indiana), and eight additional colleagues introduced S. J. Res. 10 (the text of which can be read here) to repeal two standing authorizations for the use of military force against Iraq. As Senator Kaine mentioned during Ambassador Sherman’s aforementioned confirmation hearing, Iraq is no longer an enemy and the United States should not have laws on the books authorizing military force against a security partner.

No Social Media Accounts for Terrorists or State Sponsors of Terrorism Act. According to reports, a group of House Republicans are preparing legislation to bar social media platforms from hosting US-sanctioned terrorists from using these services. The bill would mandate platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook suspend accounts used by the likes of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei or supporters of the so-called Islamic State.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Urging Biden Not to Repeat Past Mistakes. Five Senate Republicans wrote to President Biden this week urging him not to make the same mistakes, in their view, as were made during the last Democratic administration by engaging in diplomacy with Iran. The senators call on President Biden and his team to seek “bipartisan congressional support for US policy on Iran” by acceding to Republican demands that would, in practice, destroy any path to diplomacy with the government in Tehran.

The Nuclear Agreement Is Not Enough. A bipartisan duo is preparing a letter to send to the Biden Administration and Secretary of State Tony Blinken asking them to rethink their stated policy of returning to the JCPOA with Iran and the other international signatories. According to a draft letter, Reps. Anthony Brown (D-Maryland) and Michael Waltz (R-Florida) urge the Biden Administration to return to the 2015 agreement only if Iran agrees to constrain its nuclear program—as in the compromise that was the JCPOA—as well as its ballistic missile program and its financial support for terrorism.

Address Human Rights in Turkey Policy. One hundred and seventy members of the House of Representatives wrote a letter to Secretary Blinken calling on him and the Biden Administration to elevate human rights as a pillar of US-Turkish relations. The lawmakers noted that, under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Ankara has undertaken actions contrary to professed US values of human rights and democracy by imprisoning dissidents and political activists who run afoul of Erdoğan’s political party.

Denouncing the ICC Investigation into Crimes in the Occupied Territories. A bipartisan group of senators is preparing a letter to send to Secretary Blinken urging him to show “strong support for Israel” by denouncing the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) decision to open an investigation into alleged Israeli war crimes, as well as those allegedly committed by groups like Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. In their letter, the lawmakers assert that Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories are not subject to ICC jurisdiction and, beyond that, this is a biased attack against Israel. Before the group could send its correspondence, Secretary Blinken issued a press release expressing disappointment in the ICC’s decision to investigate war crimes. Although the statement reads as one committed to human rights and justice, the secretary essentially maintains long-standing US policy that Palestinians—who are not permitted, by US policy, any kind of resistance to occupation—are not allowed to seek justice through the ICC.

Senator Sanders to Secretary Blinken: Israel Must Do More to Vaccinate Palestinians. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is preparing a letter (as reported by JewishInsider) to send to Secretary Blinken calling on him to push Israel to do more to vaccinate Palestinians against COVID-19. As ACW Non-resident Fellow Yara M. Asi has written, Israel has a responsibility to inoculate the millions of Palestinians under its control against the disease, and Senator Sanders agrees.

3) Nominations

Sherman, Kahl Testify before Senate Committees. As was mentioned above, Wendy Sherman and Colin Kahl appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), respectively, in their bids to secure confirmation to top Biden Administration positions. Aside from expressing support for the Biden Administration’s proclamation of a renewed US-Saudi relationship, the pair was asked many questions about US Middle East policy, particularly regarding Iran. Both repeated numerous times their support for the JCPOA, albeit in a renewed form, and both maintained that priority number one for the United States should be ensuring that Tehran never acquires a nuclear weapon. The two nominees were criticized by Senate Republicans for their support of Obama-era diplomacy with Iran—and in Kahl’s case, his outspoken criticism of the Trump Administration’s Iran policy—but Democrats welcomed the two nominations as a sign that President Biden will refocus on diplomacy and work to once again reach an agreement with Iran.

4) Hearings and Briefings

Global Security Challenges and Strategy. Aside from confirmation hearings, the SASC held a hearing this week to explore the challenges facing President Biden as he settles into the Oval Office. Very little of the discussion focused on the Middle East and North Africa which, in itself, is a development. While the witnesses—former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Thomas Wright—did recommend a continued US presence in the Middle East, they and the committee members focused on pivoting away from the region and toward “great power competition” with Russia and China. It appears that, like during the Obama Administration, many in Washington want to extricate the United States from the region.

Bipartisan Congressional Briefing on Iran Policy. On March 3, the Organization of Iranian American Communities hosted a bipartisan congressional briefing on US policy toward Iran. The briefing focused on H.R. 118, a bipartisan resolution with 112 cosponsors that expresses “support for the Iranian people’s desire for a democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran” and condemns Iran’s human rights violations and state-sponsored terrorism. The event featured remarks by 24 members of the House in an effort to raise public awareness about the Iran’s actions in the region and across the world.

Reps. Tom McClintock (R-California), Brad Sherman (D-California), Dan Crenshaw (R-Texas), Judy Chu (D-California), and the others expressed support for efforts by Iranian citizens to fight for freedom in the face of oppression by the Iranian government. Sherman went further, calling on the United Nations to independently review the malign behavior of the regime. In sum, lawmakers’ remarks all sent the same message: Iran’s regime is dangerous and should be replaced with a free, democratic, and nonnuclear state that will protect the Iranian people and contribute to increased global security.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Vice President Harris Speaks with Israeli Prime Minister. Vice President Kamala Harris and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on the phone this week about US-Israeli relations. According to the readout, the two discussed security issues related to Iran, the ICC investigation (see above), and the need for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

President Biden Issues New Directives on Drone Strikes. According to a New York Times report, President Biden has sought to reduce the authority with which the Pentagon and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) conduct counterterrorism drone strikes across the globe. While the president’s order allows for continued drone operations in places like Syria, the report says that the Pentagon and CIA will now have to seek permission from the White House if either wants to conduct drone strikes in places like Yemen and Somalia. This is part of a larger discussion within the White House about future policy regarding US drone strikes, which are highly controversial among human rights activists. Unsurprisingly, Biden’s reported actions drew condemnation from congressional Republicans, including the ranking members of the House committees on foreign affairs and armed services.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Announces Actions on Yemen. The Biden Administration has said that it views ending the disastrous war in Yemen as a priority and Secretary Blinken took steps this week that he says will further the peace efforts. First, the secretary participated in the international High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen in an effort to raise money to ease the suffering of the Yemeni people. Despite a disappointing result that saw the international community pledge—not actually donate, but simply assert the wish to provide funds—$1.7 billion, or half of the needed amount, Secretary Blinken lauded the $191 million pledged by the United States. While the Biden Administration was providing funding, it also took measures to try to ensure that two Ansarullah, or Houthi, leaders are deprived of financial support. According to the readout, the United States will block all assets of these two leaders for threatening the peace, security, or stability of Yemen.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Qatari Counterpart. Secretary Blinken had a conversation with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. The two talked largely about efforts to reconcile Gulf Cooperation Council relations after Saudi Arabia and its followers end their physical and diplomatic isolation of Doha.

Richard Nephew Joins Biden State Department. The Biden Administration has appointed Richard Nephew, who is considered a sanctions expert crucial to the Obama Administration’s efforts to punish Tehran prior to the signing of the JCPOA, as deputy special envoy to Iran. Although he will serve under Biden’s Iran envoy, Rob Malley, early signs indicate that the Iranian government views his appointment skeptically.

Biden Administration Wants to Know Status of Syria’s Detainees. The newly confirmed ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called on Syria to make public the status of the civilians who have been detained and imprisoned in Syria since the outset of its decades long war. The new administration has brought with it a renewed focus on the Syrian conflict and, with all signs indicating that President Bashar al-Assad has effectively succeeded in holding on to power, the administration appears to be focusing on bringing justice to tens of thousands of Syrians who have suffered during the war.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here

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