Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Requiring the Removal of US Armed Forces from Saudi Arabia. This week, Senators Kevin Cramer (R-North Dakota) and Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) introduced S. 3572, a bill that aims to force the Trump Administration to withdraw US troops currently based in Saudi Arabia. The bill comes as lawmakers, particularly Republicans, have criticized Riyadh for its role in fomenting a surge in oil production that has seen global energy prices plummet. There are currently thousands of US personnel stationed in Saudi Arabia to train Saudi forces and help deter Iranian attacks on the kingdom.

The frustration with Saudi Arabia among Republicans has forced some to propose axing the United States’ security commitment to the kingdom. Indeed, Senator Cramer specifically tied the issue of US military presence in Saudi Arabia to Riyadh’s “waging war on [US] energy producers.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also raised the issue of international energy stability with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. According to the State Department readout, the secretary stressed that as “an important energy leader, Saudi Arabia has a real opportunity to rise to the occasion and reassure global energy and financial markets when the world faces serious economic uncertainty.” At a time when a pandemic is having a negative impact on the global economy, Republicans who understand that a thriving economy is key to President Donald Trump’s reelection prospects are putting pressure on Saudi Arabia to stabilize energy markets so as not to exacerbate the current economic downturn.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Progressives Write to Secretaries Pompeo and Mnuchin about Iran Sanctions. Last week, Arab Center Washington DC noted that prominent progressives have raised concerns about the effects that US sanctions are having on Iran’s ability to contain and mitigate its cases of COVID-19. This week, progressives, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York), penned a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin urging the Trump Administration to refrain from levying additional sanctions on Tehran as well as to suspend existing sanctions and help facilitate the flow of critical aid directly to the Iranian people.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Administration Officials Concede US Prisoner May Have Died in Iran. News outlets reported this week that the US government and the family of Robert Levinson, the longest-held US citizen in detention, believe he is dead. According to recent reporting, Levinson, who was kidnapped on Iran’s Kish Island 13 years ago this month, is believed to have passed away in Iranian custody “some time ago” and that he died well before the recent spread of COVID-19.

2) Department of State

State Department on Release of Those Detained around the World. As the highly contagious coronavirus continues to roil the globe, several countries, including the United States, have made an international push to reduce numbers of prisoners and detainees to protect those vulnerable populations from the virus. Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook spoke this week specifically about two American citizens who were granted some reprieve by foreign governments amid the coronavirus outbreak: Amer Fakhoury and Michael White. Fakhoury, who is suffering from late-stage cancer, was flown out of Beirut after spending months detained by the Lebanese government for his role as a leader in the Israeli-backed South Lebanese Army. White, though not officially released from Iranian custody, was moved from an Iranian prison to a hospital; he is seeking a return to the United States as Iran struggles to cope with a massive coronavirus outbreak.

It seems that the United States’ position on releasing prisoners, who are a highly vulnerable population during infectious disease eruptions, is not uniform. The State Department issued a press release expressing disappointment in France’s decision to release an Iranian national from prison—and therefore, not honoring Washington’s extradition request—in exchange for the return of a French researcher. In addition, while citing the COVID-19 pandemic, the State Department also called on the Syrian government to ensure the release of arbitrarily detained civilians and US citizens.

State Department Looks to Combat Iranian Propaganda. The spread of the coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, has prompted certain states to embark on a disinformation campaign claiming that the United States created the virus and unleashed it on the rest of the world. Iran and China have been particularly pernicious actors in this regard, even as both states obfuscated their own roles in exacerbating the global spread of the pandemic and refused to provide the most accurate information about the nature of outbreaks in their countries. Therefore, the State Department released two fact sheets (here and here) to combat popular Iranian regime talking points about the virus.

3) Department of Defense

COVID-19 Outbreak Changes Pentagon Operations. Despite the fact that activities around the globe ground to a halt due to the widespread transmission of the coronavirus, the Pentagon went ahead with planned military exercises with the United Arab Emirates and Israel. Both exercises were allowed to continue because, in the case of personnel in the UAE, they had been isolated for some time with little exposure outside of their group. For the US-Israel exercise, it was centered around fighter jet training and personnel were never in close proximity to one another.

The spread of COVID-19 has hampered US military operations elsewhere. In Iraq, for instance, the Pentagon intended to withdraw some US troops in order to consolidate personnel among a fewer number of bases in Iraq, but it planned to maintain robust engagement with Iraqi security forces and the coalition to defeat the Islamic State (IS). However, the diffusion of the coronavirus has forced the Pentagon to reassess previous plans; Iraqi security forces have stopped training and some members of the anti-IS coalition will return to their home countries as a precaution.

During a press conference at the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State David Schenker elaborated on the fact that canceling training was no surprise. The State Department announced later that the embassy in Baghdad would provide the Iraqi government with $670,000 to combat the coronavirus pandemic.

4) Department of Energy

Former Deputy National Security Advisor Now Special Energy Envoy to Saudi Arabia. Weeks after being transferred away from the White House’s National Security Council to the Department of Energy, Victoria Coates, formerly the deputy national security advisor, is being dispatched to serve as the special energy envoy to Saudi Arabia. At a time when global energy markets are weighing down an already battered economy, Coates will be tasked with confronting the kingdom about its decision to boost oil output and decreasing prices.

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