Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Bill Aims to Provide Compensation for US Victims of Libyan State-Sponsored Terrorism. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced S. 4554 allowing for compensation to the victims and families of victims of Libyan state-sponsored terrorism. The text of the bill has not yet been released, but the effort could be an attempt to rectify damage from the era of Muammar Qadhafi, when Tripoli was accused of sponsoring a number of terrorist attacks.

Considering recent developments, however, Senator Collins could also be trying to make it easier for current Libyan warlord General Khalifa Haftar to be held liable for compensation in US courts. Just this week, the leader of the Libyan National Army was sued in a Virginia court for damages related to alleged war crimes he may have overseen in Libya. Haftar, who is a US citizen, is being sued by two Libyan nationals who accuse him of being responsible for the deaths of their family members when he led a siege on Benghazi in 2016-2017. Haftar has hired lawyers to defend him and is seeking immunity from the suit, claiming he should be treated like a head of state.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senators Want Clarity on International Religious Freedom Reporting. A group of 16 senators, led by Senator James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seeking clarity on the State Department’s annual reporting on the status of international religious freedom abroad. Though the list of countries in question is furnished by the Department of State, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) produces its own report every year and makes recommendations for the State Department to consider. Senator Lankford and his colleagues are seeking clarification about why the State Department declares some countries as “Countries of Particular Concern” (CPCs) or designates states for a “Special Watch List” (SWL), as USCIRF recommends, but declines to do so with other states. In 2019, for example, the State Department included two Middle Eastern states—Iran and Saudi Arabia—as CPCs on USCIRF’s recommendation, but neglected to designate Syria in the same way. As for the 2019 SWL states, the State Department only included Sudan from the Middle East and North Africa when USCIRF would have included Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, and Turkey as well.

House Chairpersons Seek Investigations into Pompeo’s Jerusalem Video. Secretary Pompeo recorded a speech for the Republican National Convention while on diplomatic travel to Jerusalem and now some of the most powerful House Democrats want him investigated for violating a law known as the Hatch Act. House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-New York) and House Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-New York) have requested the State Department Inspector General to open an investigation into the matter. Pompeo’s action was listed as just one of many incidents that House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney (D-New York) has asked the Office of Special Counsel to investigate the potential violation of the law.

Engel’s committee, along with its Senate counterpart, are also reportedly investigating the sale of the US ambassador’s official residence in Tel Aviv to Republican donor Sheldon Adelson.

Saudis Caught in House Republican’s Fight with Twitter, Rebuked by House Democrats. Rep. James Comer (R-Kentucky), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, has been agitating against Twitter Inc. since July for what he considers the company’s failure to prioritize the security of its users’ data. Saudi Arabia was drawn into the fight this week when, in a new letter to Twitter’s chief executive officer, Comer asserted that Twitter’s negligence helped Saudi spies track, harass, and in some cases murder political dissidents. Comer’s assertion stems from the lawsuit of a Saudi dissident who is suing Twitter for “’turning a blind eye’ to wrongdoings” in order to placate Saudi Arabia.

In addition to Rep. Comer’s correspondence, House Democrats issued a statement rebuking Riyadh’s ambassador in Washington. Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Adam Schiff (D-California) each wrote to the Saudi ambassador earlier this year requesting information about Saudi women’s rights activists imprisoned in the kingdom; in the months since, the embassy has refused to provide any information. This incident could only cause more tension between Riyadh and the Democratic Party.

3) Hearings and Briefings

1988 Massacre in Iran: Call for Justice and Accountability. On September 4, the Organization of Iranian American Communities (OIAC) held a commemorative event to draw attention to the 1988 mass execution of political dissidents by the Iranian government. The OIAC secured prerecorded messages from a bipartisan group of House members, all of whom expressed their solidarity with those still seeking justice for the events of 1988. The representatives included Democrats Steve Cohen (Tennessee), Angie Craig (Minnesota), and Raja Krishnamoorthi (Illinois) and Republicans Debbie Lesko (Arizona) and John Katko (New York). All of these members spoke about unity with the people in Iran and in the Iranian diaspora who remain committed to achieving democracy and respect for human rights in Iran.

Egypt: Trends in Politics, Economics, and Human Rights. On September 9, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism held a virtual hearing to explore what Chairman Ted Deutch (D-Florida) described as “an unfortunate and troubling trend of human rights abuses in Egypt.” The two-panel hearing provided a great deal of detail regarding President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi’s gross violations of human rights and the ways his regime is undermining the rule of law and closing down civil spaces in Egypt.

Though the expert witnesses disagreed on how much leverage the US government wields over Cairo, they all agreed that Washington has been far too lenient in exercising that leverage to exact changes in the Sisi regime’s human rights record. The panelists set forth some clear recommendations for Congress to consider. First, lawmakers should recalibrate US assistance to Egypt, reducing military spending and investing more in aid that supports human and environmental development. Second, any aid that is furnished should be conditioned on Cairo’s success in improving its human rights record and reforming its government’s spending priorities; to do this, Congress should abolish the national security waiver that allows presidents to override human rights concerns when making decisions about providing US support. Even though these are not policies that Congress itself can implement, the witnesses also offered other proposals like targeting Sisi and other regime officials with Global Magnitsky Act sanctions and instituting visa bans on top officials as punishment for the regime’s malfeasance.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Speaks to King Salman on Israel, Announces UAE-Israel Visit. President Donald Trump continued his outreach to Middle East states this week after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Israel signed a normalization deal that the Trump Administration mediated. In fact, the “Abraham Accords” process earned the president a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, though the nomination came from the same Norwegian Member of Parliament who nominated Trump in 2018 after what later proved to be unsuccessful negotiations with North Korea. The president has arranged for Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli officials to meet with Emirati officials at the White House for a signing ceremony on September 15. It is notable, however, that Crown Prince and de facto ruler of the UAE, Mohammed bin Zayed, does not appear to be planning to join.

President Trump also reached out to Saudi King Salman this week, likely in an effort to gauge Riyadh’s interest in normalizing relations with Israel. According to Saudi state media accounts of the discussion, the topic was broached and King Salman reasserted the kingdom’s commitment to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, precluding the possibility of normalization without permanently settling the Palestine question.

2) Department of State

State Announces New Sanctions Targeting Iran, Supporters of Hezbollah. The State Department announced yet another round of sanctions targeting Iran’s petrochemical industry this week. It is no surprise that many of the entities targeted by this tranche of sanctions are based in Iran and China (a country that has attempted to trade with Iran, despite US sanctions) and that some of the entities blacklisted this week are based in the UAE. The Gulf state is considered a US partner against Iran, yet its government has been unwilling to prevent entities there from circumventing US sanctions (or perhaps is unaware of their actions).

The Department of State also announced sanctions on two former Lebanese ministers who held positions in previous Lebanese governments. Yusuf Finyanus and Ali Hassan Khalil are being targeted for fostering a hospitable environment for Hezbollah, a US-designated terrorist organization. This move is considered a warning shot to other Lebanese officials who have helped grow and maintain the kind of corruption that permeates throughout the Lebanese government and economy.

Assistant Secretary Schenker Provides Update on US Policy in the Middle East. On his return from a three-state tour of the Middle East, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker participated in a virtual briefing to provide an update on US policy in the region. Schenker’s discussion was wide-ranging, covering aspects like Gulf Arab unity, Israel’s normalization with its neighbors, and the ongoing conflicts in Yemen and Libya.

As the highest-ranking administration official focused specifically on the Middle East and North Africa, Schenker was able to offer timely insight into the administration’s specific policies regarding problems plaguing the region. For instance, he told viewers that the United States will be pushing to reform the UN mission to Libya and to add a special envoy focused solely on negotiations. On Lebanon, Schenker said the administration is supportive of the French government’s proposed reforms for the Lebanese government; he also announced that Washington is preparing $30 million in new aid to the Lebanese people. He stated that the United States is nearing the end of mediating a framework for negotiations that will allow Lebanon and Israel to work toward demarcating their maritime borders. While Schenker provided a broad presentation, he only provided one other specific policy update: that the United States was going to pursue a snapback of UN sanctions on Iran despite the lack of support from the international community. As an economic powerhouse, he said the United States’ effort will dissuade foreign companies from selling weapons to Iran, whether or not foreign governments deem US actions as legal.

Special Envoy Pham Visits Mauritania for Bilateral, Multilateral Talks. Special Envoy for the Sahel Region J. Peter Pham traveled to Mauritania this week for meetings with officials, including President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani. Pham spoke with the president about multiple issues including security, human rights, and the rule of law in Mauritania.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Speaks with Israeli Counterpart. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper held a phone call with Israeli Defense Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz this week. According to the Pentagon’s readout, the pair “exchanged views on how recent developments”—i.e., Israel’s normalization plan with the UAE––“will advance shared US-Israeli defense priorities, and committed to maintaining an open dialogue about potential avenues for cooperation.” Recent reporting states that Gantz and his team at the ministry view the F-35 fighter jet sale that the UAE is eager to secure from the United States, after agreeing to normalization, as basically a “done deal,”—so it is not difficult to suspect that Gantz initially tried to leverage that jet sale to secure benefits for Israel.

Pentagon to Withdraw 2,200 Soldiers from Iraq. General Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command, announced this week that the US military would be scaling back its presence in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 soldiers. The drawdown comes as little surprise, as General McKenzie has said on a number of occasions that as the capability of Iraqi troops and security services grows, the Pentagon would reduce its footprint in the country.

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