Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

HFAC Pushes Forward Middle East-Related Legislation. The full House Foreign Affairs Committee held a markup session this week where members considered, amended, and passed a slate of bills relevant to US policy in the Middle East. The committee ushered through the Protection of Saudi Dissidents Act (H.R. 4507) and the Protecting Human Rights During Pandemic Act (H.R. 6986) in addition to House Resolutions 17, 823, and 1077.

H.R. 4507 would give Congress the ability to better scrutinize the Saudi government’s concerted intimidation and harassment of the late Saudi journalist and US resident Jamal Khashoggi—or any other individual in the United States—before his murder in Istanbul, Turkey. The bill would prohibit the United States from selling weapons to Saudi defense or security services unless the State Department certified that the entities were not engaged in such activities. In addition, it would require the president to close Saudi diplomatic outposts in the United States if Riyadh is caught using diplomatic credentials to facilitate the harassment and intimidation of Saudi dissidents.

H.R. 6986 seeks to put Washington at the forefront of protecting human rights at a time when the coronavirus pandemic has seen governments around the world institute a wave of repressive policies. Indeed, the authors of the bill cite Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Jordan, and Turkey as examples of states that have instituted measures that go beyond those deemed necessary for a public health response. These states, according to the bill’s text, are guilty of imposing strict restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of information. This legislation, among other things, would provide millions of dollars in aid to protect freedoms and support human rights defenders. It would force the executive branch to consider gross violations of human rights through the use of emergency powers when certifying the delivery of US security assistance to countries that receive it (e.g., Egypt and Jordan).

H. Res. 823 and H. Res. 1077 passed, as written. They condemn Iran’s continued violations of human rights and state-sponsored persecution of the Bahai religious community. They also express the sense of Congress that US-Lebanon relations are of import. H. Res. 17, meanwhile, was amended to express concern over the detention of US citizens Austin Tice and Majd Kamalmaz in Syria. In addition, the resolution was further amended, calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to abide by US law as set forth by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act and release all political prisoners held in Syria.

Honoring the Life, Legacy, and Example of Former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin. On the 25th anniversary of his death, members of the House and Senate introduced resolutions in honor of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (see here and here). In addition to honoring the life of Rabin, the resolutions also reiterate Congress’s support for close ties between Israel and the United States and reaffirm lawmakers’ commitment to resolving the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians through a two-state solution.

Guaranteeing Israel’s QME Act. Weeks after calling on the Trump Administration to protect Israel’s qualitative military edge (QME) over its regional neighbors, Rep. Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) introduced legislation to ensure that edge is maintained. H.R. 8494 is in direct response to reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is seeking to secure US-made F-35 fighter jets due to its decision to sign a normalization agreement with Israel. The legislation, should it become law, would require US government officials to consult relevant Israeli officials about the impact on Israel’s QME of any potential arms sales to countries in the Middle East. Some Israeli news outlets described this bill as giving Israel a “veto on Middle East arms sales.”

Condemning Turkish Interference in the Nagorno-Karabakh Conflict. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers introduced H. Res. 1165 to condemn the conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia, but also to criticize Turkey for its role in the fighting. Ankara has long supported Azerbaijan—viewed by this group of lawmakers as the aggressor in the outbreak of hostilities—and is partly blamed for the most recent fighting after joint Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises resulted in the death of an Armenian fighter pilot. In addition to the resolution, members of both the House and Senate wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urging the administration to push Turkey to use its relationship with Azerbaijan to move toward a cease-fire agreement with Armenia under the auspices of international mediation.

Hezbollah Money Laundering Prevention Act. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina) introduced H.R. 8445 this week in an effort to place more sanctions on Lebanese Hezbollah. According to a press release, Wilson’s bill would blacklist any banks operating in areas under Hezbollah’s control in an effort to deprive it of economic resources.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Mohammed bin Salman’s Saudi Arabia: A Critical Look. On October 1st, the Project on Middle East Democracy held an event to explore Saudi Arabia under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). One of the panels included prerecorded videos from Senators Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) as well as Democratic members of the House Tom Malinowski (New Jersey), David Trone (Maryland), Gerry Connolly (Virginia), Ro Khanna (California), and Jim McGovern (Massachusetts). The speakers largely talked about their desires to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the kingdom. Reps. Malinowski and Trone raised alarms about Saudi Arabia under the leadership of MbS, whom they described as reckless, and expressed the need for the United States to undertake a reevaluation of US-Saudi relations. Reps. Khanna and McGovern expressed discontent with the fact that the 2021 G20 meeting is scheduled to convene in Saudi Arabia. They urged the international community—and the United States in particular—to refrain from cooperating with Riyadh until the kingdom tells the truth about what happened to Jamal Khashoggi, releases political prisoners, and ends its war in Yemen.

Sen. Tom Cotton Says a President Biden Cannot Simply Rejoin the JCPOA. During a virtual event at the Hudson Institute, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) recounted what he believed to be the Trump Administration’s foreign policy successes in the Middle East and explored the future of US policy under the president elected to take office in January 2021. Cotton lauded the Trump Administration’s maximum pressure campaign against Iran, the military campaign against the so-called Islamic State (IS), and efforts to cultivate normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states.

Moving forward, the senator said he believed that a second term for the Trump Administration would result in more pressure on Iran, ultimately pushing the regime in Tehran to capitulate and negotiate an agreement with the United States. He also thought four additional years of a Trump Administration would see “peace break out” between Israel and the Arab states. Senator Cotton opined that if Vice President Joe Biden were to take the reins as president, while he would reverse the “maximum pressure campaign,” he would not be able to quickly rejoin the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Cotton asserted that the Trump Administration’s pressure campaign—encouraged by Senator Cotton and his hard-line colleagues in Congress—precludes a Biden administration from quickly and easily rejoining the JCPOA and providing relief to Tehran.

Rep. Joaquin Castro Tells J Street That Palestinian Voices Must Be Elevated. Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), who is competing to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee should Democrats retain control of the House of Representatives, told his audiences at J Street and the Democratic Majority for Israel this week that Palestinian voices should be heard in Congress when considering a solution to the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Castro is considered the most progressive of the Democrats who have expressed interest in taking the gavel of the committee; he told J Street that if the United States intends to be a mediator in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, Washington should hear from Palestinians and their advocates. Castro insisted on elevating Palestinian voices at the same time that he expressed some support for conditioning the United States’ generous aid to Israel on the latter’s human rights practices. He told viewers that it is within Congress’s purview to explore what Israeli activities—like annexation, the expansion of illegal settlements, and the demolition of Palestinian homes—are underwritten by US aid and he said this assistance should not be used to further such policies.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

DAS Rayburn Discusses Iran’s Militias in the Levant. This week Joel Rayburn, the Deputy Assistant Secretary (DAS) for Levant Affairs and special envoy for Syria, participated in an event to discuss Iran and its influence in the Levant and the broader Middle East. Rayburn said that, in recent years, it has been clear that Iran has undertaken unprecedented military interventions in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen in an effort to turn these four countries into military garrisons. As such, the Trump Administration views Iran as the single most destabilizing factor in the Middle East today. To combat this, Rayburn said the Trump Administration has made pushing back against Iranian aggression the centerpiece of its Middle East policy. As such, the administration has imposed “maximum pressure” that, he argues, has weakened Hezbollah, diminished the revenue Tehran uses to pay militias in Iraq, and reduced Iran’s presence in Syria. Moving forward, Rayburn said that the administration will maintain its maximum pressure campaign and will encourage stronger bilateral and multilateral relations in the region, particularly between Israel and the Gulf Arab states, in an effort to present a united front against Tehran.

Asst. Secretary Schenker, Under Secretary Hale Talk Lebanon-Israel, Libya. This week the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, David Schenker, held a press conference to announce that Washington brokered an agreement between Israel and Lebanon that will aid in the two states’ negotiations over maritime border demarcations. Schenker said that negotiations between Lebanon and Israel will be hosted by the United Nations, with the United States acting as the main mediator. Ostensibly this will result in the sides delineating the maritime borders where valuable sea gas deposits exist. At the same time, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale participated in a multilateral meeting in an effort to reduce tensions in Libya. Hale and his counterparts supported a Libyan-led ceasefire and political solution to the fighting and they encouraged all sides of the conflict to stop fighting and seek an end to the war.

Ambassador Friedman Comes Out against a Potential President Biden. Most US ambassadors refrain from engaging too deeply with domestic US politics, but US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman has opted not to follow this tradition. Friedman told an Emirati news outlet that a Biden presidency would be bad for US partners in the region, like Israel and the Gulf Arab states. He intimated that because Biden and his team would seek diplomacy with Tehran over unilateral sanctions, the United States would not have the leverage to force Iran to capitulate to US demands because of sustained economic pressure.

Qatar Requests US F-35 Jets. Qatar has formally requested a purchase of US-made F-35 fighter jets that the UAE is also seeking. The F-35 is a sophisticated warplane and, according to the report, officials in Israel, in Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, and in the United States would oppose such a sale. Nevertheless, the United States and Qatar are close partners and President Trump and his top advisors have been keen on selling the same fighter plane to the UAE; therefore, there is a chance the administration would look kindly upon selling the expensive jets to another wealthy Gulf Arab state.

2) Department of Justice

US Repatriates American IS Members, Will Try British IS Members. The Department of Justice announced this week that not only did it repatriate dozens of American IS supporters to stand trial, but it also secured the extradition of two British members of IS who are accused of murdering American citizens on behalf of the group. The Trump Administration has been a vocal advocate for repatriating IS fighters to their countries of origin to stand trial.

III. Judicial Branch

US District Court Awards Levinson Family Nearly $1.4 Billion. A US District Court judge ruled this week that Iran must pay more than $1.4 billion in compensation to the family of Robert Levinson, a US citizen who was believed to be imprisoned by Iran until his presumed death earlier in 2020. Unless the US government diverts frozen Iranian assets to Levinson’s family, it is nearly impossible that Tehran would compensate the family; until now, the government has refused to admit that it abducted or imprisoned Levinson during the 13 years he was missing.

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