Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

United States Israel Military Capability Act. On May 20, Senators Gary Peters (D-Michigan) and Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) introduced S. 3775 that would require the Department of Defense to establish a working group with its counterpart in Israel to collaborate on the research and development of technology used for national defense. The senators’ legislation is just the latest in a line of efforts meant to coax the Pentagon into working even more closely with the Israeli military.

Bills and Resolutions Promoting Human Rights and Press Freedom. This week Congress introduced bills and resolutions intended to reassert Washington’s commitment to promoting human rights and press freedoms around the world. On human rights, Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) introduced S. 3819—titled Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act—that seeks to put the United States at the forefront of championing human rights at a time when a global pandemic has sparked a wave of repressive government actions globally. Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. Res. 595 that declares press freedoms a priority of the United States as it promotes democracy, human rights, and good governance. Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced S. 3818—the World Press Freedom Protection and Reciprocity Act—to provide the United States the resources to support global press freedoms. House members introduced identical legislation to both Markey’s (see here) and Rubio’s bills (see here), respectively.

Recognizing the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan. In honor of the end of Ramadan, Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell (Michigan), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan) introduced H. Res. 973 honoring Eid al-Fitr.

SFRC Marks Up and Passes Bills Relevant to the Middle East. On May 21, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) met to consider, amend, and ultimately adopt a spate of bills, some of particular import to the Middle East. They included the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act (background here), the US-Israel Security Assistance Authorization Act (background here), and the Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership Act (background of the bill from a previous Congress can be found here). All of these bills will move to the Senate floor for full consideration but, as one observer pointed out, it is unlikely that senators will sufficiently debate these bills; instead, they are expected to pass them uncritically.

USA FREEDOM Authorization Act. The national security surveillance bill outlined in last week’s report was scuttled this week after Republicans and dozens of progressive Democrats in the House teamed up to sink the controversial bill. It is unclear what path forward congressional leaders have for reauthorizing these surveillance tools.

2) Nominations

Rep. Ratcliffe Confirmed as DNI by Lowest Margin in History. Former Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) has faced a head-spinning confirmation process for becoming the Director of National Intelligence (DNI)—reports of his saga, dating back to the summer of 2019, can be found here, here, here, here, and here—but he won approval from the Senate and was sworn in as the head of 17 intelligence agencies this week. By a vote of 49-44, Ratcliffe won by the fewest number of Senate votes since the position was created in 2005.

SFRC Advances Controversial Nominee to Oversee Broadcasting Board. The SFRC narrowly advanced Michael Pack’s nomination to serve as the chief executive officer of the US Agency for Global Media, formerly known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors, which oversees US media activity abroad including programming for the Middle East Broadcasting Networks. Pack has been accused of illegally enriching himself by using donations intended for a nonprofit organization that he led to fund his for-profit private media company. Democrats waged an impassioned battle against his nomination, but due to the GOP majority, Pack advanced through committee and will likely have the support necessary in the full Senate to head the media enterprise. If Pack were to be formally confirmed, he might immediately be tasked with reforming one of the United States’ Middle East broadcasting programs. The Special Representative for Iran, Brian Hook, penned an op-ed in the New York Post pillorying the US-funded Voice of America Persian News Network for its coverage of Iran. Derisively dubbing it the “Voice of the mullahs,” Hook called for reform at the news agency and Pack—a conservative filmmaker considered an ally of President Trump and of former presidential advisor Steve Bannon—will likely help in shaping the narratives pushed by Washington’s Middle East language programs.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Democrats Unveil Letter to Israeli Government. As reports here and here detailed, for weeks a trio of Senate Democrats have attempted to craft a letter to Israeli leaders Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz to dissuade them from pursuing annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and Jordan River Valley. After weeks of negotiations and edits, the senators released their letter and it garnered a total of 18 signatures. This version goes to great lengths to avoid inflammatory statements or insinuations about potential US retaliation for annexation and it ignores completely the fact that their preferred alternative—a negotiated two-state solution—is perhaps completely out of reach regardless of Israel’s looming actions.

Democrats Reportedly Consider Legislation to Pressure the Administration on Saudi Arabia. Al-Monitor reported this week that congressional Democrats are actively preparing legislation that, should it pass, would require the Trump Administration to furnish a public report listing any and all Saudi officials who may have had a role in ordering the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. Congressional Democrats have taken the administration to task for failing to abide by current law that demands this public account—one that most suspect identifies top Saudi officials like Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as having orchestrated the murder. It is not known how any new legislation could assist in the effort; the intelligence community said in February that it could not produce a public report for fear of revealing “sources and methods” critical to their work.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Trump Administration Considers Situation in Libya. This week, President Donald Trump reportedly spoke with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan about the situations in Libya and Syria. According to the White House’s account, Presidents Trump and Erdoğan discussed the worsening foreign intervention in Libya’s civil war—in which Turkey is a major patron of one side (the Government of National Accord, GNS)—and the need for de-escalation between the sides. In addition, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland both spoke with the prime minister of the internationally recognized GNA in Tripoli, Fayez al-Sarraj, about the situation in the country and their concerns about the proliferation of weapons and munitions. In a press conference this week, a Pentagon spokesperson also implored all sides to refrain from further destabilizing Libya and to constrain their activities in the country to counterterrorism. This comes as the Pentagon identified Russian aircraft deployed to Libya.

Trump to End Nuclear Cooperation Waivers for Iran. The State Department announced that the Trump Administration has decided to levy additional sanctions on Iran and further renege on another provision of the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Special Representative Hook and a State Department colleague also held a press conference on the matter. This time, the administration is suspending sanctions waivers that were built into the JCPOA and allowed for countries to work with Tehran on its civilian nuclear energy capabilities. By revoking the waiver that allows outside entities to be on Iranian nuclear sites, it would seem the administration is reversing these preferred policies. However, it remains to be seen whether Russian or Chinese entities will abide by the order and end their work with the Iranians.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Announces New Sanctions on Iranian Entities. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took time this week to mark the two-year anniversary of the administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. He said at a press conference that he “launched the campaign to get Iran to behave like a normal nation” and expressed his willingness to continue, despite evidence that suggests Iranian activities have not been deterred by the two-year effort. To increase pressure, Pompeo announced the imposition of sanctions on 12 Iranian individuals and entities, including the current minister of the interior, Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli. Secretary Pompeo also noted that the State Department’s “designation of Islamic Republic of Iran Shipping Lines” takes effect on June 8.

Ambassador Craft Discusses Syria, Iran. Kelly Craft, the US ambassador to the United Nations, participated in an online event this week to discuss, among other things, US policy toward Syria and Iran. On Syria, Craft made clear that the situation is quite perilous due to the long running humanitarian crisis and the spread of COVID-19. She urged states to continue observing the global cease-fire that is in place so the United States and the international community can deliver medical supplies and other types of aid. Craft also stated that the United States and its partners “have to prevent the regime from intercepting the humanitarian aid” and she disclosed that the international community is working to secure and establish a third Iraq-Syria border crossing at Yarabiya to ensure that aid gets to those in need.

On Iran, Ambassador Craft criticized what she considered Iran’s global malign activity in response to a question about Iranian oil vessels shuttling oil to Venezuela in defiance of US sanctions. She also reiterated the administration’s talking point that US sanctions specifically exempt humanitarian aid, despite the fact that multiple reports, including one produced by the Pentagon, illustrate that US sanctions effectively bar Tehran from importing critical humanitarian goods and medical supplies.

Pompeo “Regrets” Abbas’s Vow to End Agreements with United States. During a press conference on May 20, Pompeo told reporters that he “regrets” Abbas’s decision to withdraw from agreements between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the United States and Israel. Pompeo said he hoped the president’s vow would not ultimately upend years of cooperation. However, the PA formally announced it would end its security cooperation with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). This appears to be a blow to Pompeo’s successor at the CIA, Gina Haspel, who flew to Ramallah shortly after the release of the administration’s so-called “peace plan” to encourage her PA counterpart to continue cooperation with her agency despite its refusal to engage with the Trump Administration.

State Department Announcements on Arms Sales Investigations. The State Department issued a pair of announcements this week regarding US arms sales to Arab states. First, the State Department lifted a nine-year ban on the Saudi subsidiary of a British  company after that company was found to have committed fraud and violated numerous arms control regulations. In practice, this now allows the United States to sell arms to a Saudi entity, effectively clearing yet another path for Riyadh to purchase arms from the United States. The timing is fortuitous for the Saudis, considering the State Department reportedly is preparing a request for an arms package for Riyadh that is smaller—though it is similar to the arms deal that was the basis for an Inspector General’s investigation into Secretary of State Pompeo.

The Department of State also cleared Riyadh’s close ally in the region, the United Arab Emirates, of any potential wrongdoing after an investigation explored how US military equipment was unlawfully transferred from Abu Dhabi to warring factions in Yemen. This decision ostensibly clears the way for the arms sales negotiations to continue; however, according to CNN’s reporting, at least two Democratic Senators—Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Chris Murphy of Connecticut—have raised concerns and are calling for additional oversight.

Pompeo Speaks with Iraq’s Kadhimi; Assistant Secretary Nagy Discusses Sudan. Secretary Pompeo held a brief call with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to discuss Iraq’s economy, the US-Iraqi Joint Dialogue, and the need for Kadhimi’s government to pursue economic reform.

In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Tibor Nagy held a press conference this week to discuss the threat of COVID-19 to states in Sub-Saharan Africa. However, Nagy was asked about Sudan after recent reports detailed that the State Department had reached an agreement with the transitional government in Khartoum to compensate the victims of 1998 terrorist attacks. Nagy was careful to say that, as he understood it, the agreement was on “the contours of a future bilateral claims agreement,” meaning that the two sides are still finalizing the details of Khartoum’s claims settlement. Furthermore, he clarified that this action will not immediately result in Sudan’s removal from the US state sponsors of terrorism list—a major goal of the transitional government there—and, instead, will have to wait for a lengthy, multi-level government review.

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