Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

FY 2021 Defense Appropriations. House Democrats passed their fiscal year 2021 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 7617) this week. The bill authorizes the Pentagon to spend $694.6 billion and includes $500 million for Israeli missile development as well as provisions prohibiting military action against Iran.

FY 2021 Intelligence Authorization Act. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California) introduced the annual intelligence authorization bill that sets policy preferences for the nation’s 17 intelligence services. H.R. 7856 has a whole section—“Title VIII Subtitle A”—dedicated to the Middle East. The language details requirements for reports on nuclear proliferation, Saudi Arabia’s spread of extremist ideology, civilian casualties in Yemen, and possible financial influence operations by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. In addition, the bill would prohibit American intelligence and law enforcement cooperation with Saudi counterparts until Congress receives a report on the murder of Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi. It would also ban the use of funds for sharing intelligence with those waging the war on Yemen.

Expressing the Sense of the Continued Importance of the US-Lebanon Relationship. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) introduced H. Res. 1077 at a time when Lebanon is facing economic, political, and social instability. The resolution is a two-part call, the first urging the Lebanese government to work to clean up corruption and ensure stability in the country while the second part expresses support for Lebanese protest movements and the Lebanese Armed Forces.

NIE on Iranian Proxy Forces Act. Reps. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) and Lee Zeldin (R-New York) introduced bipartisan legislation that would require the intelligence community to produce a national intelligence estimate (NIE) regarding the threat of Iranian-backed militias in the Middle East. H. R. 7850 requires an assessment of Tehran’s actions and support for proxy forces, including Lebanese Hezbollah, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Review of the FY 2021 State Department Budget Request. On July 30, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) to discuss the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for the State Department and US Agency for International Development. The hearing was lengthy and wide-ranging, during which the secretary and committee members examined some issues relevant to the Middle East and North Africa. Pompeo and several Republicans on the committee talked about one of Washington’s favorite subjects: Iran. The secretary repeated his assertion that the Trump Administration seeks behavior change through “maximum pressure” and he maintained his willingness to reimpose unilateral and multilateral sanctions—including the UN arms embargo that expires October 2020—either through the UN Security Council or by American fiat.

In addition to Iran, committee members sought answers about US sanctions on Turkey for its purchase and testing of the Russian S-400 missile defense system; delisting Sudan as a state sponsor of terrorism; Trump Administration efforts to pressure Saudi Arabia on its repeated attempts to help its citizens escape justice after alleged crimes in the United States; and additional Caesar Act sanctions on Syria.

NIAC Virtual Gala 2020. The National Iranian American Council (NIAC) held a virtual gala this week. It featured a group of House Democrats who sent recorded messages to the audience, including Ro Khanna and Barbara Lee of California, Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, Pramila Jayapal of Washington state, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan. Most of the members were recipients of NIAC awards. The Democrats spoke about policies deemed exceptionally important by NIAC and others in the Iranian American community: the need for diplomacy with Iran and for the United States to rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, limiting President Donald Trump’s ability to wage war against Tehran, and ending punitive immigration policies like the immigration order popularly referred to as the “Muslim ban.” NIAC also lauded Rep. Lee for successfully shepherding into the FY2021 defense budget language that would sunset the 2001 and 2002 authorizations for the use of military force; these have been cited to deploy military force in and against Syria, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen in the past, and some feared they could be manipulated to authorize action against Tehran.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Sen. Graham, Secretary Pompeo Express Support for US-Kurdish Oil Deal. During the aforementioned SFRC hearing with Secretary Pompeo, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) told the committee he had recently held a phone conversation with the leader of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Mazloum Abdi, and expressed support for a recent deal signed between Abdi’s SDF and a US oil company to “modernise the oil fields in northeastern Syria.” When asked, Pompeo said the administration approves of the move.

Rep. Lamborn Calls for Sanctions on PA/PLO Officials. Republican Rep. Doug Lamborn (Colorado) reportedly wrote a letter to President Trump calling on the administration to sanction top Palestinian Authority (PA) and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) figures under a US law known as the Taylor Force Act. Lamborn asserted that the PA’s financial assistance to Palestinians in administrative detention in Israeli prisons incentivizes the Palestinian people to commit violence against Israelis and, according to the Taylor Force Act, must be sanctioned. The letter The Jerusalem Post report specifically cites “PA/PLO Commission of Prisoners’ Affairs and its Director Qadri Abu Bakr” as candidates for personal sanction, but Mahmoud Abbas would be vulnerable to sanctions as well, as president of the PA and chairman of the PLO.

Israeli Security Personnel Call on Congress to Support Trump Peace Plan for Israel and Palestine. According to the Israeli publication Arutz Sheva, a group known to represent over 1,000 current and former Israeli security officials and soldiers penned a pair of letters urging lawmakers to support President Trump’s so-called peace plan, “Peace to Prosperity.” The group sent separate letters to the Republican and Democratic House caucuses, and they thanked the GOP for a letter that members sent to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

White House Aide Berkowitz Still Working on Implementing Peace Plan. Though the United States and Israel have been more mum on the issue, The Times of Israel reported this week that Avi Berkowitz, the White House’s Special Representative for International Negotiations, is continuing to hold meetings, eyeing a way that Israel can implement annexation. According to a source in the report, Berkowitz and his team are looking at options for placating the Palestinians with a benefit of substance if the White House agrees to allow Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank and Jordan Valley without direct negotiations between the Israeli and Palestinian governments.

NSA O’Brien Releases Statement on Libya. President Trump’s National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien released a statement this week expressing the White House’s concern about recent developments in Libya. O’Brien decried foreign military involvement in the Libyan war and reiterated the US position that there is no military end in sight—only a negotiated settlement between the Government of National Accord and Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army.

2) Department of State

State Department Levies More Sanctions on Iran. The State Department made two determinations that, in practice, will sanction any person or entity that provides support to Iran’s metal and construction industries. In a statement released in Secretary Pompeo’s name, the Department of State said that materials like aluminum, steel, and copper contribute to Tehran’s ballistic missile program. In addition, the statement noted the secretary’s determination that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps controls the construction sector in Iran and, in an attempt to drain the group of financing, support for that sector is now off limits.

The new sanctions come at a time when Iran is facing a new wave of coronavirus infections and importing humanitarian goods has become more difficult. The US government has always said that items like food and medicine are exempt from US sanctions, but Washington had to allow the Swiss to set up a special trade mechanism to facilitate the exchange of humanitarian supplies. In fact, even in a recent article detailing how the Swiss Humanitarian Trade Agreement completed its first transaction, it is glaringly clear that the US sanctions regime is so complex that countries are wary of facilitating the flow of even humanitarian goods without express US permission—which Washington seems reluctant to give.

Ambassador Craft Discusses UN at Aspen Security Forum. On August 4, the US ambassador to the United Nations participated virtually in the Aspen Security Forum to talk about her experience at Turtle Bay. Ambassador Kelly Craft recounted some of the successes she has achieved at the United Nations, including mobilizing support to ensure that multiple cross-border entry points remained available for humanitarian relief efforts to Syria. The majority of her Middle East-related remarks centered on Iran. Here, Craft defended the US military’s assassination of General Qassem Soleimani in Iraq and described her efforts to entice UN and UN Security Council states to support an extension of the arms embargo on Tehran.

Ambassador Brownback Touts US Support for Yezidis, Urged to Do More. The Free Yezidi Foundation hosted a multi-panel conference (available here in Arabic) this week to commemorate the six years since the so-called Islamic State swept through Yezidi communities in Iraq and carried out acts of violence so brutal that the international community considers them genocide. The group hosted the US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom Sam Brownback and Nadine Maenza, a commissioner at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom. While Brownback lauded the Trump Administration’s commitment to rebuilding the Yezidi community in Iraq’s Sinjar district, he conceded that the international community needed to do more. Maenza was more blunt, stating that humanitarian assistance is not enough for a community still reeling from its traumatic experience, adding that the Yezidis have little to return to in Sinjar.
3) Department of Defense

Anthony Tata Withdraws from Consideration but Gets Appointed to Pentagon Role. The Senate Armed Services Committee abruptly scuttled the nomination hearing for controversial nominee Gen. Anthony Tata this week and, shortly after, the candidate withdrew himself from Senate consideration. However, the Trump Administration found a workaround solution: Tata was appointed to serve as Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. The position does not require Senate confirmation and Tata will ostensibly report to the Under Secretary for Policy, which serves as the Pentagon’s third-highest ranked civilian official. However, Democrats view the move as a shadow appointment in which Tata will de facto serve in the position for which he could not win confirmation.