Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Congratulating the People of the Republic of Turkey. Though members of Congress are not physically meeting on Capitol Hill, lawmakers are still submitting bills and resolutions for consideration. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) introduced H. Res. 931 this week to show support for the people of Turkey and Turkish-Americans on “Turkish National Sovereignty and Children’s Day.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Coons and Cruz to Push for More Money for US-Israel Cooperation. Senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) released a joint statement this week explaining that the pair will be pushing for some $12 million to be appropriated “to enhance partnerships between companies in the United States and Israel to develop innovative medical projects aimed at detecting, treating, and curing COVID-19.” According to the statement, their efforts stem from legislation the two authored called Expanding Medical Partnerships with Israel to Lessen Dependence on China Act.

The bill sets aside $4 million every fiscal year for three years to be allocated to US and Israeli companies for collaboration on developing health technologies to combat COVID-19. Instead of fighting for this bill to pass independently, Senators Coons and Cruz said they intended to fight to include the language of this bill into any “Phase 4” appropriations package that Congress could pass to address the coronavirus pandemic. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), who dictates what the upper chamber votes on, does not appear committed to putting forth another coronavirus relief package, so it is unclear if the senators have a vehicle to which they can attach their language at present.

Reps. Meng and Wilson Question Pentagon’s Use of Israel’s Iron Dome. Rep. Grace Meng (D-New York) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) spearheaded a bipartisan letter to Secretary of Defense Mark Esper asking for information on the military’s plans to deploy Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile technology. The US military is set to buy two Iron Dome missile batteries in fiscal year 2020 and, citing multiple attacks against US troops in Iraq, lawmakers are curious about the Pentagon’s plans for the anti-missile defense system. While they did not specifically ask that Iron Dome be deployed to the Middle East, they made references to the need to protect US troops in places like Iraq, so it appears that they are strongly implying that there is a need to use this technology in the region. Military officials responded to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee this week; the issue of US use of the Iron Dome was raised but no Pentagon official went as far as to assure lawmakers that the Iron Dome technology would be deployed to the Middle East anytime soon.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Wants US to “Block” Saudi Oil, “Destroy” Iranian Vessels, and Suspend Immigration. As Arab Center Washington DC has chronicled, the global economy—already in flux due to the nature of the pandemic response—is being dragged down further by extremely volatile oil markets. President Trump has made it a point to appear to be a leader in calming oil markets and protecting US energy producers. In that regard, he announced this week that he will look at preventing Saudi oil carriers from offloading their oil in the United States and will take other measures to shore up US energy companies’ bottom lines. Even before that, the president’s top energy advisor at the State Department, Francis Fannon, told reporters during a briefing that the administration was considering levying punitive measures, like tariffs on oil imports, ostensibly to urge the Saudis to cut back their exports to the United States. It appears that Riyadh got the message. Reuters has reported that the Saudis are exploring options for rerouting oil shipments that were originally bound for the United States.

The president also took to Twitter this week to declare that he had “instructed the United States Navy to shoot down [sic] and destroy any and all Iranian gunboats if they harass our ships at sea.” The tweet was a response to recent reports that Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps vessels harassed US naval forces earlier this week while the latter was reportedly conducting a training exercise within the international boundaries of the Gulf.

Finally, in order to demonstrate that his administration is acting on behalf of the millions of US workers who are suffering under the economic shutdown necessary for combating the COVID-19 pandemic, the president ordered a government freeze on immigration into the United States. As is the case with many other presidential fiats issued via social media, this decision appeared broad at first, prompting many in the United States to criticize it as xenophobic and useless in fighting a pandemic that continues to spread throughout the United States. However, the administration backtracked and the legal mechanism the president is using exempts the largest class of immigrants, although it puts a freeze on issuing green cards for 60 days, including those going to people from the Arab world.

Trump Administration Helps Undermine Global Cease-fire Efforts. Foreign Policy reported this week that the Trump Administration, along with Russia, tried to undermine the international community’s efforts to initiate a global cease-fire for all active conflicts. The reasoning was apparently to maintain maximum latitude to continue striking terrorist entities and sustaining military pressure on Iran-backed operations in the region. The United States stands alongside Russia as the only states prolonging any potential global cease-fire agreement.

2) Department of State

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with GCC Officials. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held individual phone calls with the ministers of foreign affairs of Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar this week. The topics of all three conversations were the same: combating the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic and confronting Iran’s regional aggression. All three Gulf Cooperation Council states are managing the fallout from the pandemic, but the strain on their resources is a serious concern for many who study the region, particularly as oil prices fluctuate wildly due to lack of demand.

Political Directors of the Coalition to Defeat IS Discuss Fight against the Group. Even though countries around the world have been paralyzed by the swift spread of the novel coronavirus, the political directors of the coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State (IS) met virtually this week and released a statement about their efforts. The participants expressed their dedication to maintaining pressure on the remnants of the terrorist group, but they acknowledged that coalition training of security partners in Iraq and Syria has been put on pause due to the spread of COVID-19. Nevertheless, they maintained a commitment to resuming that training when conditions permit. Furthermore, the political directors discussed the importance of guaranteeing Iraq’s territorial sovereignty. They reiterated their support while expressing a desire to increase assistance to areas of the country that have been liberated from IS. Despite the rhetoric, events since the early days of 2020 have been held up by officials in Iraq as proof of the disregard for Iraqi sovereignty by the United States, a key member of the coalition.

Trump Administration Touts Congressionally Mandated US Aid as US Largesse. The State Department has been touting its support for humanitarian causes around the world as proof of US benevolence in a time of global pandemic. The press team in Foggy Bottom issued a statement this week chronicling all the ways the United States “is continuing to lead the humanitarian and health assistance response to COVID-19″ and highlighting the amount of money Washington is delivering to countries around the world. However, a brief survey of the figures in the statement demonstrates that the efforts the administration is praising is anything but unexpected. In particular, aid to places like Yemen and the occupied Palestinian territories is well below the amount intended when Congress passed the fiscal year 2020 appropriations package. While the administration boasts of its generosity, the amounts being delivered to Yemen and the Occupied Palestinian Territories are much less than what was appropriated by Congress and subsequently cut by the Trump team.

In a twist of fate that would have seemed unthinkable just months ago, Egypt has reversed its traditional role as a net recipient of international aid and dispatched a military cargo plane to the United States to deliver “anesthesia drugs and antibiotics as well as body bags, masks and testing swabs.” The ironic image of a resource-strapped Egypt sending aid to the wealthier United States illustrates how poorly Washington has handled the US response to this pandemic. It also underscores the fact that Cairo has yet to truly feel the impact of the coronavirus—as it is donating critical goods and equipment that will surely be needed in the future when the pandemic inevitably hits its population of nearly 100 million people.

Secretary Pompeo Delivers First Remarks on New Israeli Government. Secretary of State Pompeo applauded Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz for forming a national unity government this week, issuing the first remarks of the Trump Administration on the development. Regarding potential annexation, Pompeo took a blasé approach, telling reporters that the decision to violate international law is Israel’s alone to make. It is not a surprising position, as annexation of Palestinian land was a key aspect of the administration’s so-called peace plan.

3) Department of Defense

The Pentagon’s New Head of Middle East Policy. The Department of Defense confirmed this week that Simone Ledeen, the former director for special operations at the Defense Department who also previously worked with former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn in Afghanistan, will be assuming the position of deputy assistant secretary of defense for Middle East policy. Ledeen will take over from Michael Mulroy, who left the position in December 2019. Ledeen will be tasked with helping the Pentagon craft policies toward the Middle East to address urgent issues like COVID-19, ending prolonged conflicts in places like Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and maintain pressure on IS.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Soofer Talks Missile Defense. This week Robert Soofer, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy, participated in a virtual discussion on the United States’ 2019 Missile Defense Review. Soofer extended the findings of the review to explore the Pentagon’s missile defense capabilities in defending against threats to both the United States and its personnel in the Middle East. He spoke at length about the technical matters that the Department of Defense must confront to shore up its missile defense capabilities, while making clear that the United States considers the proliferation of short, medium, and intermediate range missiles in the Middle East as a serious threat. Furthermore, Soofer stated that so-called “rogue countries” pose a strategic threat to the security of the United States, citing North Korea and Iran as examples.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Tries to Clarify Trade Rules with Iran amid COVID-19 Pandemic. The Treasury Department issued a fact sheet this week meant to clarify the rules for humanitarian trade to countries under sanctions, including Iran. Despite telling businesses and international partners that US sanctions exempt humanitarian goods, the Trump Administration has had to repeatedly assure the international business community that it can safely facilitate humanitarian assistance to Iran.

To discuss this issue, Andrea Gacki, the director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) at the Treasury Department, participated in an event to discuss US sanctions policy. Gacki clearly stated that one of her primary objectives is to assure that sanctions do not impede humanitarian relief, highlighting the aforementioned OFAC guide. Furthermore, she maintained that her office’s intent was to ensure that any requests to provide relief are met with “priority and urgency.” While Gacki’s appearance was meant to reinforce the view that the United States is not impeding Iran’s efforts to combat COVID-19, it is unlikely that these steps will be sufficient in placating those who call for broader sanctions relief.

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