Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels Act. Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Mike Lee (R-Utah), and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minnesota) introduced S. 977, which is this Congress’s version of a bill popularly referred to as “NOPEC.” The legislation would treat the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC)—of which countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and others are members—as an organized cartel, thus exposing it to US antitrust jurisdiction for its role in an alleged price fixing scheme.

Israel Relations Normalization Act. Senators Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Todd Young (R-Indiana), and Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) teamed up to sponsor S. 1061, known as the Israel Relations Normalization Act. According to the group’s press release, the bill is meant to build on the so-called “Abraham Accords” signed between Israel and some Arab countries by requiring the State Department to submit reports regarding efforts of countries to normalize relations with Israel.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Internet Freedom and Iran. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-California) recently participated in a virtual event hosted by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) to explore internet freedom in Iran. The congressman argued that allowing for free expression and dissent in autocratic countries like Iran sets the stage for a society that will prioritize human rights. As such, overly broad sanctions like those levied by the United States could be counterproductive in that they inhibit Iranians’ ability to secure access to the internet and to express themselves freely, as the ruling government prohibits free access and expression. On the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Rep. Khanna argued that the United States, because it was the first party to abrogate the agreement, should return to the deal without preconditions. To help move things forward in light of the current administration’s reluctance, the congressman said that there might be bipartisan support for legislation that carves out targeted exemptions to Washington’s overly broad sanctions to allow for freedoms like greater access to the internet.

On human rights promotion in Iran and the broader Middle East, Rep. Khanna asserted that Washington should avoid military intervention in the name of remaking societies; instead, he suggested the use of considerable American technological and economic influence to encourage and cultivate a culture of inclusive and pluralistic liberal democracy in the region.

The Iran Nuclear Deal or No Deal. On March 31, NIAC held a separate event with Rep. Khanna, in addition to Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), to examine the fate of the JCPOA.

Senator Murphy said that the Trump Administration’s experiment with “maximum pressure” against Tehran proved that unilateral sanctions will not prevail; it also reinforced the idea that Washington must engage with its international partners to secure a deal with Iran that restricts its nuclear energy program. Senator Murphy argued that the only logical path forward is to rejoin the JCPOA and reinvigorate diplomacy with Iran. He also stated that, because the United States was the first to leave the nuclear agreement, it should have no qualms with taking the necessary steps to revive the deal. As the senator noted, if the United States were to renew its compliance with the deal and the Iranians continued with actions that run counter to the deal, Washington would have a greater standing with its international partners when arguing for more multilateral international pressure.

For his part, Rep. Khanna was even more strident, saying that he was perplexed by the Biden Administration’s Iran policy and that the president’s lack of diplomacy thus far has been “disappointing.” Rep. Khanna lauded the appointment of Rob Malley as the special envoy for Iran, but he was miffed by the administration’s failure to quickly resume compliance with the JCPOA. He stated that the United States should lift its unilateral, nuclear-related sanctions and resume adherence to the deal and, in agreement with Senator Murphy, that Washington could always fall back on sanctions should Tehran not follow suit.

Palestinian Rights in 2021. On April 2, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) participated in a virtual event on Palestinian rights in Israel and the occupied territories in 2021. Rep. Tlaib spoke about how crucial the current year will be for shifting the terms for the conversation in the United States around Israeli occupation and Palestinian rights. Most notably, she argued that thanks to her work and the tireless work of activists, progressives will soon understand that they cannot lay claim to being social justice advocates if they do not support the Palestinians’ desire for justice, too. They will also come to realize that it is acceptable to criticize Israeli policies toward Palestinians. It is clear that shifting the narrative regarding the occupation will be difficult; even self-proclaimed progressives have commonly been referred to as “progressive except for Palestine” due to their reflexive pro-Israel positions. As an example, Rep. Tlaib noted that a letter she and 11 of her colleagues sent to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in March referred to Israeli policy as “settler colonialism,” a term that would not have been embraced by members of Congress even a few years ago.

On the ground, Rep. Tlaib elaborated on how Israeli policy has resulted in “medical apartheid,” particularly when it comes to the Israeli government’s unwillingness to provide Palestinians in the occupied territories with COVID-19 vaccines in large numbers. Moving forward, she argued that this—almost as much as the occupation itself—will act as a kind of violence against Palestinians and an affront to their livelihoods and dignity.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Probe Biden Administration on Iran. Senator Chris Murphy and his colleague Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) are seeking support for a letter to counter a more hawkish letter penned by Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina). In their letter, Murphy and Kaine panned the Trump Administration’s Iran policy and urged the Biden Administration to take a “compliance for compliance” approach to renewing the JCPOA. Although Democrats in Washington were busy this week pushing for renewed engagement with Iran, others were probing the Biden Administration about policies they viewed as misguided. For example, four Senate Republicans wrote to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen opposing the potential disbursement of “special drawing rights” from the International Monetary Fund that could benefit states like Iran and Syria. In addition, three House Republicans wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking whether the United States is involved in facilitating an exchange of $1 billion between South Korea and Iran. The lawmakers called on the secretary to ensure that Washington will not facilitate such a transfer until, among other things, Iran returns to compliance with the JCPOA.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Washington Renewing Interest in Syrian Conflict. The Biden Administration appeared to renew the United States’ focus on the war in Syria this week, with the State Department announcing a new round of humanitarian assistance for those suffering in Syria. In addition, Secretary Blinken participated in a UN Security Council briefing on Syria where he said that the international community must do more to ensure that humanitarian assistance gets to those who need it. To that end, he argued that the Security Council must reauthorize border crossings into Syria so that aid can reach the greatest number of people. In addition to exploring the humanitarian aspect of the war in Syria, US officials also met with international partners to explore ways to ensure the enduring defeat of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and neighboring Iraq. In the group’s joint statement, officials said that in order to prevent a resurgence of IS in Syria, the civil war there must end under the auspices of UN Security Council resolution 2254. In addition, areas liberated from the group in both Syria and Iraq must be stabilized so normal life can resume.

State Offers Reward for Hezbollah Official, Announces Receipt of Sudan Payment. This week, the State Department announced a $10 million reward for information that leads to the location of Salim Jamil Ayyash, whom the department describes as “a senior operative in the assassination unit of the terrorist organization Lebanese Hizballah.” As the readout notes, Ayyash was convicted in absentia by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon of terrorism charges stemming from the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. This action comes as the United States and its international partners are reportedly considering imposing sanctions against a number of Lebanese politicians for their roles in Beirut’s current governing crisis.

In other financial news, the State Department announced that it received some $335 million from Sudan to settle claims against the government’s role in a spate of violent attacks. This settlement was one of the major factors that spurred the removal of Sudan from the United States’ list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Secretary Blinken Unveils 2020 Human Rights Report. Secretary of State Blinken unveiled the State Department’s 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices. The report examines the human rights practices of every Middle Eastern and North African state and outlines, in the preface, that Washington has serious concerns about human rights in war-torn states like Syria and Yemen. It is noteworthy that the reports on human rights in the West Bank and Gaza as well as in the Golan Heights are consolidated within the report about Israel.

Special Envoy Lenderking Meets with Regional Officials on Yemen. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking visited the region this week in an effort to reach an agreement on ending the war in Yemen. Lenderking met with Yemen’s official leaders, including Foreign Minister Ahmad Awad bin Mubarak, Prime Minister Maeen Abdulmalik Saeed, and President Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi. In addition, Lenderking met with officials of Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Special Envoy for Sudan Attempts to Mediate GERD Dispute. This week, ­Al-Monitor reported that the Biden Administration’s special envoy for Sudan, Donald Booth, traveled to Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia in an attempt to mediate the three countries’ dispute over Addis Ababa’s planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. The tensions stem from fears held by both Cairo and Khartoum that the Nile River dam will negatively impact their access to water resources. This is Washington’s first attempt at mediation since 2020 and, according to the report, Booth was undertaking a kind of fact-finding mission to help inform the Biden Administration’s policy on the matter.

State Department Officials Reach Out to Middle East Officials. In addition to the aforementioned diplomatic efforts, miscellaneous members of the State Department were involved in outreach to Arab states. Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to the United Arab Emirates to discuss the climate crisis. On Libya, Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood held a phone call with Tripoli’s new interim foreign minister, Najla Mangoush, to encourage the new government’s approach to bring peace to Libya. Lastly, diplomats are preparing for next week’s US-Iraq Joint Strategic Dialogue where the two sides will discuss ongoing cooperation on issues like security and counterterrorism. Ahead of the meeting, Washington announced that it would extend Baghdad four months of sanctions relief that allow it to import natural gas from Iran.

Finally, Secretary Blinken concluded the week with conversations with his counterparts from Bahrain and Israel. Blinken and Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani discussed bilateral relations as well as issues related to multilateral security in the region. Afterward, Secretary Blinken spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi about regional security issues and the state of affairs between Israelis and Palestinians. Interestingly, this phone call was held after the Biden Administration decided to reverse President Donald Trump’s sanctions on personnel of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for the court’s decision to, among other things, open an investigation into Israeli policy in the occupied territories. Although the State Department continues to oppose the ICC investigation, it is likely that Blinken sought to reassure his counterpart on this matter, considering that Israeli officials view the investigation as a serious threat to Israel’s security establishment and overall policies toward Palestine. Despite the Biden Administration’s decision on ICC sanctions, a group of House Republicans penned a letter arguing that US law requires the administration to suspend assistance to the Palestinian Authority for initiating or supporting an investigation into Israeli war crimes.

State Department Acknowledges that the West Bank Is Occupied. In answer to journalists’ questions, State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged on March 31 that the Palestinian West Bank is under Israeli military occupation, thus reaffirming long-standing and stated US policy on the Palestinian territory.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks with Turkish Counterpart. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke with his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, this week to discuss the two countries’ defense relationship. Austin was compelled to communicate Washington’s opposition to Ankara’s deployment of the Russian-made S-400 missile defense system.

III. Judicial Branch

Federal Judge Tosses Case against US Campaign for Palestinian Rights. This week, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit targeting the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights based on the fact that the plaintiffs showed no factual evidence that the group is liable for damages in cases of violent attacks against Israelis. The plaintiffs, which include the Jewish National Fund and a group of US citizens living within Israel, made sweeping claims that the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights materially supported Hamas and broadly instigated violent attacks through its support for two protest movements: the Great March of Return in Gaza and the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The judge dismissed the case, in part because the plaintiffs’ arguments were not compelling or convincing.

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