Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Outdated AUMF Repeal Act. On March 18, a small bipartisan group of House members introduced H.R. 2014, or the Outdated AUMF Repeal Act, that would formally repeal four wide-ranging authorizations for use of military force (AUMFs) in the Middle East. The 2001 and 2002 AUMFs that authorized use of force against terrorists in Afghanistan—and eventually in several other countries where al-Qaeda or related groups were present—and allowed for the invasion of Iraq are the most well known. This group of lawmakers would also like to repeal a 1957 resolution from the days of President Dwight D. Eisenhower that is excessively broad and authorized the president to use force to support any country in the region that sought US assistance in the fight against communism. The other legislation in their crosshairs is the 1991 AUMF that authorized use of military force during the first Gulf War against Iraq. It is unclear whether the group has the support, or the votes, to pass this bill into law, although lawmakers on both sides of the aisle in both chambers have expressed support for reexamining the AUMFs that remain law.

2) Hearings and Briefings 

Reps. Meeks, McCaul Speak before Virtual AIPAC Event. According to media coverage of the event, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) kicked off its annual national council meeting virtually and offered time to Reps. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas) to speak before participants. AIPAC’s key goals this year include boosting bipartisan support in Washington for normalization between Arab states and Israel, security assistance for Israel, and a general anti-Iran policy. As such, the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) were perfect fits because they share a bipartisan consensus on those issues. For his part, Meeks has ruled out conditioning any US military support for Israel under his watch.

Human Rights and Democracy in Iran. On March 17, the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC) held a virtual briefing with a bipartisan group of senators and marked the upcoming Persian holiday, Nowruz. The senators took the opportunity to criticize the Iranian government and express their support for a US policy that seeks to pressure Tehran and hold the regime accountable for its actions against the Iranian people. The OIAC is considered to be “closely aligned” with the exiled dissident group known as the Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MeK) that was once a US designated terrorist organization. It is widely believed that the MeK, which agitates for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic and bills itself as a credible alternative government, is despised by many, if not most, in Iran and would never have the legitimacy to govern after it sided with Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war and carried out terrorist bombing campaigns in Iran. It is that much more concerning, then, that Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey), Ben Cardin (D-Maryland), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and others continue to lend support and legitimacy to the group.

Senator Shaheen Explores US Policy toward Syria. During a book discussion this week, Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) offered observations about US policy toward Syria. Highlighting the precariousness of the situation in the country, Senator Shaheen maintained that it is in Washington’s interest to ensure that US allies work together to make sure humanitarian relief is available to those suffering in Syria. In addition, she said that the United States must recognize Syria’s strategic importance in the Middle East and ascertain that American influence in Syria will not be ceded to the likes of Russia and Iran. Senator Shaheen added that the major task before her and her congressional colleagues is to explain to the American people why it is important for the United States to be involved in Syria through humanitarian support as well as continued US military presence in the country.

Assessing the Human Rights Situation in Saudi Arabia. On March 18, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism held a virtual hearing to explore the status of human rights in Saudi Arabia. The witnesses—Suzanne Nossel of PEN America, Saudi scholar Hala Aldosari, and the Atlantic Council’s Kirsten Fontenrose—offered a few recommendations for both Congress and the Biden Administration to consider. While Nossel expressed support for President Biden’s renewed rhetorical focus on centering human rights promotion in US foreign policy, she argued that the administration must take even further action to hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) directly responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi; otherwise, it risks undermining this perceived support for human rights. Nossel urged lawmakers to adopt bills that would hold MbS and the Saudi government accountable for long-standing human rights abuses, including the questionable detention of activists, journalists, and even US citizens. Fontenrose agreed with much of Nossel’s recommendations, but she also urged lawmakers to push to see MbS’s most trusted advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, removed from the official Saudi decision-making process because, she said, he is dangerous to US interests.

Aldosari offered advice to lawmakers seeking to push the Saudi government to relax its persecution of women’s rights activists. She said the United States should make an effort to develop relations with and amplify the voices of the activists pushing for change. In addition, she challenged a statement by Fontenrose about Saudi support for normalizing relations with Israel, pointing out that certain relations with Israel are already in place, most glaringly illustrated by Saudi use of Israeli technology to spy on dissidents. Aldosari contended that there is a strong sentiment among Saudi human rights activists that normalization with Israel should be off the table until Israel takes steps to end its occupation and repression of the Palestinian people.

While MbS appears to have maintained his grip on power in Riyadh, at least a few members of the subcommittee openly questioned whether the United States should pressure the Saudi royal family to remove him from the line of succession.

3) Personnel and Correspondence 

Bipartisan Group of Senators Calls on Secretary Blinken to Stand with Israel. Senators Rob Portman (R-Wisconsin) and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) spearheaded an effort to gin up support for a letter that they sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken related to Israel and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The senators urged the administration to essentially bully the ICC out of conducting its investigation, arguing that the State of Palestine is not a state and therefore should not be considered party to the Rome Statute that created the court—despite the Palestinian Authority acceding to the treaty in 2015. In addition, Senators Portman and Cardin are also reportedly crafting legislation related to Israel and its effort to maintain and grow its normalization agreements with Arab countries.

On the other side of the Capitol, 17 Democrats wrote their own letter to Secretary Blinken, urging him to ensure that Israel includes Palestinians in the occupied territories in its mass vaccination campaign. Like their Senate colleagues who wrote to Blinken on this topic recently, these lawmakers argued that it is Israel’s duty as an occupying power to ensure that Palestinians have access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

West Virginia State Legislators Urge Manchin to Sink Kahl Nomination. Senator Joe Manchin (D-West Virginia) is arguably one of the most powerful individuals in Washington, now that he is considered a “swing vote” in a Senate evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. This is not lost on members of the West Virginia state legislature and—reportedly at the behest of Christians United for Israel—they sent the senator a letter urging him to oppose President Biden’s pick to serve as the third-ranking civilian at the Department of Defense. Since his nomination, Colin Kahl has been criticized for what members of Congress consider his hyper partisan nature, his support for what many identify as a failed Iran strategy, and, most importantly in this context, being insufficiently supportive of Israel. In fact, and as Arab Center Washington DC noted recently, Kahl has repeatedly taken credit for expanding US-Israel security cooperation; additionally, a host of “Israel hawks” have urged the Senate Armed Services Committee to confirm him.

House Democrats Call on Biden to Cut Defense Spending. Fifty House Democrats have recently called on President Biden, in a letter, to propose a new federal budget that significantly cuts defense spending. The Congress members expressed concern that Biden will propose keeping the Pentagon budget at the same level in fiscal year 2022 that it is in the current 2021 fiscal budget, or $740 billion. Instead, these lawmakers want Biden to submit a budget request—which is expected no sooner than April 2021—that reduces the amount of money the Department of Defense would have to carry out Washington’s “forever wars,” among other activities.

House, Senate Party Leaders Extend Invitation to Israeli President Rivlin. According to at least one report, the leaders of both parties in the House and Senate extended an invitation to Israeli President Reuven Rivlin to address a joint session of Congress before his term expires in July 2021. It is unclear at this time whether the ongoing coronavirus pandemic will allow for a visit or if lawmakers will be comfortable convening a joint session of Congress while the risk of infection remains high.

Senator Hagerty Requests Information on Biden Administration’s Iran Policy. On March 17, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-Tennessee) wrote a letter to President Joe Biden outlining challenges Iran poses to the United States and requesting information about the president’s policies toward the Islamic Republic. Hagerty posed three questions to the president: 1) Does the administration plan on submitting to Congress any plan to rejoin the JCPOA; 2) On what basis would the administration consider offering sanctions relief to Tehran; and 3) What steps will the president and his team take to ensure that US partners and allies can defend themselves against Iran.

4) Nominations

 Senate Receives State Department Nomination, Confirms Biden’s CIA Pick. This week, the Biden Administration formally nominated Bonnie Jenkins to the role of Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. In this role, Jenkins would be a major player in developing and executing policies related to nonproliferation and arms transfers. In addition, the full Senate voted to confirm William J. Burns as Biden’s director of the Central Intelligence Agency. A more thorough examination of President Biden’s Middle East policy makers can be found here.

II. Executive Branch

 1) Department of State

Secretary Blinken, Special Envoy Lenderking Speak with Officials about Yemen. Prior to departing for his first trip to East Asia, Secretary of State Antony Blinken held an introductory phone call with UN Special Envoy for Yemen Martin Griffiths. The two spoke about the need for the United Nations to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to end the war in Yemen. The Biden Administration’s own special envoy to Yemen, Timothy Lenderking, held his own discussions on Yemen this week with officials of the Dutch and German foreign ministries. Lenderking spoke with each official about the need to end the Houthi offensive in Marib and renewed efforts to provide robust humanitarian assistance to the millions in the country facing displacement and hunger.

Biden Team Proposes “Reset” with Palestinians. According to a document obtained by The National, members of Biden’s foreign policy team at the State Department are looking to reset Washington’s relationship with the Palestinians. The document states that the United States would reassert support for a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, although there is a caveat that allows for “mutually agreed land swaps.” Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr, who reportedly wrote the memo, has already reestablished diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority (PA) as a way of resetting US-Palestinian relations. His plan includes renewing US assistance to the Palestinians, including support for controlling the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the PA likely will not agree with everything Amr spelled out. The memo also reportedly calls for pressuring the PA to end so-called “martyr payments” that many in the United States and Israel say incentivize violence and terrorism. In addition, Amr pointed out that the PA must reform its own practice of cracking down on dissent and arbitrarily arresting activists and bloggers. In addition to this memo, Amr met with “key US constituency groups” to explore ways to advance freedom, prosperity, and security in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.

Special Envoy Malley Discusses US Iran Policy in New Interviews. Rob Malley, the US special envoy for Iran, spoke with BBC Persian and Voice of America Persian this week to expound on the Biden Administration’s policy toward Iran. Malley made clear that the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been a failure and that the United States seeks diplomacy with Tehran in order to see a joint return to the Iran nuclear deal. Malley added that continued attacks in the region by Iranian proxies or other groups aligned with Tehran undermine the likelihood of direct negotiations between Washington and Tehran. He clearly still seeks diplomacy, but his remarks indicate that the Biden Administration will hold out on discussions if Iran does not take a more accommodating posture.

UAE Cancels Planned Summit with US, Israel, and Arab States. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) was eager to hold a summit with Israeli and top-ranking officials from the United States and other Arab nations in April 2021. However, according to reports, Abu Dhabi is scuttling the official summit due to its dissatisfaction with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he repeatedly invokes the UAE in his pre-election campaigns. One can assume that the summit will eventually be rescheduled, but it appears to be the first sign of disagreement between Israel and the UAE since they signed their normalization agreement.

State Department Wades into Topic of Elections in Somalia, Syria. This week, the State Department made the US position known on the question of elections in both Somalia and Syria. Citing a political impasse in Mogadishu, the State Department released a statement calling for the Somali government to “immediately” hold inclusive and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections. On Syria, however, the Biden Administration is taking a different approach, telling Damascus that it will not recognize the results of its upcoming presidential elections “unless they are free, fair, representative of Syrian society, and supervised by the United Nations.”

2) Department of Defense

 US Knocks Iran, Arab Actors in New Reports. This week, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a pair of reports on the state of freedom of navigation and efforts to influence or undermine the 2020 US elections, respectively. In the former, the United States reported on efforts by Iran to undermine maritime travel through the Strait of Hormuz and the Arabian Gulf more broadly. In addition to Iran, the Department of Defense noted that both Algeria and Yemen present problems for freedom of navigation near their borders. On election interference, the intelligence community concluded that Iran made a concerted effort to undermine former President Donald Trump’s reelection bid and, more generally, to erode Americans’ faith in the electoral process. Along with Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah was also suspected of undertaking small-scale efforts to disrupt President Trump’s reelection.

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