Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

SAFEGUARD Act. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced S. 4712—the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports, or SAFEGUARD Act—to ensure that human rights are a primary consideration when the US government explores potential arms sales. If the bill were to become law, it would have major implications for some of the United States’ traditional Arab partners like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, among others, which are consistently considered to be grave human rights violators. Though the text of the bill has yet to be released, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) also introduced legislation in S. 4685 that could have implications for these states and others. Senator Paul’s bill prohibits assistance from flowing to countries that violate religious freedom, an accusation that has been leveled at some Arab states.

Calling on Governments for the Immediate Release of Women Who Are Political Prisoners. Senator Menendez also introduced S. Res. 724 condemning the politically motivated imprisonment of women around the globe. The senator and his colleagues specifically mentioned Egypt, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, among others, as countries of concern where the United States should demand the release of all those being held unjustly.

Support for Abraham Accords and Israel’s QME. Senator James Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) introduced S. 713 in support of Israel’s reaching normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. At the same time, other members of Congress were fretting over a potential reduction in Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) as a result of the deals. The UAE is now hoping to secure the purchase of F-35 fighter jets and some lawmakers are raising alarms. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), one of the Democrats trying to replace his fellow New York Democrat Eliot Engel as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the lobbying group the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) that he unequivocally opposes any F-35 fighter jet sales to the UAE. Meeks’s reservations about the potential sale, which the Donald Trump Administration hopes to finalize by December, come not from the fact that the UAE has a demonstrated history of repression and human rights abuses at home and abroad, but that it might undermine Israel’s qualitative military edge in the region. Others, like Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois), are reportedly preparing legislation to address protecting Israel’s QME while paving the way for Abu Dhabi to receive the advanced jets.

2) Hearings and Briefings

The Role of Allies and Partners in US Military Strategy and Operations. On September 23, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to examine US alliances and partnerships and their roles in US military strategy. While committee members largely focused on US alliances in Europe and East Asia, a few members of the committee argued that the United States faces threats from Iran and from transnational terrorist organizations like IS and that Washington needs effective alliances and partnerships to face those obstacles. One witness, Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges (ret.), repeatedly stressed the importance of strengthening the US-Turkey partnership as Ankara is a critical part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and because, in the Middle East, it is a critical bulwark against both the Iranian and terrorism threats. Hodges noted that Ankara is partially to blame for the concerns in the relationship, but he also argued that the United States dismisses Turkey’s serious concerns about US support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, in Syria.

When asked specifically about managing threats from Iran and terrorist groups like IS, Hodges argued for bolstering the US-Turkey partnership while another witness, Eldridge Colby, suggested that the United States continue to promote Israeli-Arab normalization so those states can serve as the front line in pushing back against Iran in the region.

Dialogues on American Foreign Policy and World Affairs with Senator Marco Rubio. On September 23, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) participated in an event where he explained, among other topics, US policy toward Iran. The senator dedicated time to outlining Tehran’s cooperation with and support for the government of Venezuela and he proposed that the United States start more actively intercepting vessels—even commercial ones—at sea to prevent Iran from sending weapons to Caracas. On Iran more broadly, Rubio repeated the anonymously sourced claim that Iran would have enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by the end of 2020. Iran’s supposed pursuit of nuclear weapons, combined with the lack of certainty about who would replace the aging supreme leader upon his death, is of great concern to Senator Rubio.

Rubia also argued that Washington must raise the costs of Tehran’s ability to secure nuclear weapon technology, saying the path to that approach must be more sustainable in the long term than the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that the Trump Administration scuttled. Iran’s advancements in conventional and asymmetric defense capabilities make bombing and eliminating Iranian nuclear capabilities less and less likely, the senator said, so the United States must do all it can to signal to Tehran that it is more beneficial not to have a weapon in the first place.

US Policy in a Changing Middle East. On September 24, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing with two key figures overseeing the Trump Administration’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The committee heard testimony from the Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale and the Special Representative for Iran and Venezuela Elliott Abrams.

In his opening statement, David Hale touted the signing of the Abraham Accords as a “game changer” for the Middle East and a step toward restarting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. Hale spoke briefly on Lebanon where, he noted, Washington has provided nearly $20 million in aid and relief since the August 4 explosion decimated the Beirut port and neighboring areas. He stated that ending Iranian influence should be the Trump Administration’s top priority in the region and that it needs the help of the Gulf Arab states to accomplish this goal. Elliott Abrams elaborated on the administration’s policy toward Iran, outlining two primary objectives: first, to deprive the Iranian regime of the money it needs to support its destabilizing activity in the region, and second, to use economic pressure to bring Iran to the negotiating table with the aim of reaching an agreement that goes beyond what the JCPOA addressed. Some lawmakers raised questions about US troop presence in Iraq and Syria and Saudi Arabia’s pursuit of nuclear energy—perhaps a nuclear weapon—and ballistic missile programs.

Sen. Coons Calls for Thorough Reexamination of US Relationship with Saudi Arabia. One of the Senate Democrats’ most vocal foreign policy thinkers told an audience this week that Washington should fundamentally rethink US-Saudi relations. Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), who many think could be a secretary of state nominee under a potential Joe Biden administration, spoke at the launch of DAWN—Democracy for the Arab World Now—and criticized the way the Trump Administration has ignored states’ human rights abuses in favor of bolstering arms sales, like in the case of Saudi Arabia. DAWN was founded by Jamal Khashoggi, who was slain by a Saudi hit squad likely dispatched by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. There is ample reason to believe a Biden administration would be less accommodating of a Saudi Arabia led by the crown prince, but Coons’ influence in a potential Biden administration would be strong and Riyadh could therefore face a reckoning in 2021.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Democrats Call on Netanyahu to Stop Israeli Eviction of Palestinian Family. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-California) and 25 of her Democratic colleagues in the House sent a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging the Israeli government to end its attempt to evict a Palestinian family from its East Jerusalem home. The House lawmakers wrote that evicting the Sumarin family, which has lived in the home since 1950, would be a grave injustice, adding that their forceful eviction is “potentially explosive” in occupied East Jerusalem and would have “negative implications for future peace negotiations.”

Fifty-seven House Republicans Seek Sanctions on Iranian Financial Sector. The group of 57 Republican members of the House followed the lead of GOP Senators Tom Cotton (Arkansas) and Ted Cruz (Texas) and wrote a letter to President Trump urging him to blacklist the entirety of Iran’s financial sector. The lawmakers said that “at least 14 Iranian banks remain open and connected to the SWIFT financial messaging network for sanctions-free financial transactions” and urged the administration to cut off Iran’s access to the outside world to “deal a further, final blow to Iran’s financial industry” and force it to negotiate with the United States.

Three Senate Democrats Request Lebanon Be Exempt from Caesar Sanctions. Many observers have warned that Lebanon would suffer blowback from US efforts to sanction the regime in Syria. Indeed those fears are being realized, so Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Chris Murphy (Connecticut), and Tim Kaine (Virginia) reportedly wrote to the State Department recently, requesting that Lebanon be exempt from Caesar Act sanctions, thus allowing the country to continue to import electricity from Syria. The senators noted that Lebanon is facing an energy supply crisis and cutting off Lebanese access to Syrian electricity would exacerbate the shortage.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

Administration Officials Consider Designating Houthis as Global Terrorist Group. According to a report by The Washington Post, the State Department has started conversations about whether the administration should designate Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a global terrorist organization on par with the so-called Islamic State, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Such a designation would ostensibly freeze any Houthi member’s assets in the United States, bar those members from traveling to the United States, and prohibit any entity from providing support to the group.

US Could Shutter Embassy in Baghdad. According to officials quoted by The New York Times, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is considering closing the US embassy in Baghdad due to sustained but low-level rocket attacks on the compound. The move can easily be understood as a precautionary measure; after all, rocket attacks prompted the secretary to close the US consulate in Basra in September 2018 and reduce embassy staff in Baghdad in May 2019. However, as the Trump Administration ramps up pressure on Iran before the November US presidential election, it is easy to see this move as a diplomatic form of maximum pressure. Pompeo and the administration are frustrated by Iran’s influence in Iraq and some consider the threat of shuttering the embassy akin to a vote of no confidence in Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Kadhimi, who has the difficult task of balancing US and Iranian interests in beleaguered Iraq. Furthermore, if the United States follows through with closing the embassy, some believe it would be understood by Iran and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias as a precursor to US military action in Iraq, or even in Iran.

State Department Announces New Sanctions Alongside New Aid. It was a give-and-take week for the Trump Administration in terms of economic engagement with the Middle East. The State Department announced two rounds of new sanctions, one on Iranian entities for human rights abuses and one on Syrian entities as part of the Caesar Act. At the same time it was levying new sanctions on Syria, the department also announced a tranche of new assistance to Syrians living both inside and outside the country. In addition to Syria, the United States also announced humanitarian aid for Mauritania, among other countries in the Sahel region of Africa, to help alleviate health and environmental crises there. Lastly, the administration called on countries to step up their efforts in providing humanitarian assistance to Yemen.

Trump Administration Again Cuts Refugee Cap. As the world faces its largest refugee crisis in at least a generation, the State Department announced yet another cut in the maximum number of refugees the United States will accept in the upcoming fiscal year. The department notified Congress that it capped refugee resettlement at 15,000—down 16 percent from 18,000 last year—but in reality, the administration will likely only resettle even a fraction of that total, reducing the odds of Syrian, Yemeni, Libyan, and other refugees gaining admission to the United States.

Pompeo, Mnuchin Hold Discussions with Saudi Officials. Secretary of State Pompeo and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin each held conversations with their Saudi counterparts this week. Pompeo spoke with Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud about Yemen, the ongoing row between Gulf Cooperation Council states, and the recent normalization agreements the UAE and Bahrain signed with Israel. Mnuchin spoke with Saudi Minister Mohammed Al-Tuwaijri about the state of the economy in the time of the COVID-19 crisis. In addition to his meeting with Al-Tuwaijri, Mnuchin also met with Egyptian Ambassador to the United States Motaz Zahran to discuss economic developments as well as the construction of the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, a project that has complicated Egyptian-Sudanese-Ethiopian relations.

2) Department of Defense

Secretary Esper Travels to Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. This week, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper traveled to Tunisia where he held meetings with President Kais Saied and Minister of Defense Ibrahim Bartagi. Esper spoke with both officials about regional developments and bilateral efforts to address some of those issues. The secretary cosigned a 10-year “Roadmap for Defense Cooperation” with Bartagi that codifies US-Tunisian cooperation to promote stability and security in the region. After Tunis, Secretary Esper is set to travel to Algeria and Morocco to further explore security cooperation in North Africa.

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