On Capitol Hill, COVID-19 Recovery Aid Seen as Potential Weapon

Included in Arab Center Washington DC’s June 21 report was a brief description of a kerfuffle between Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) and some of his constituents. This was thanks to a tweet he posted that appeared to support preventing the United States from aiding Iran with its COVID-19 pandemic response and recovery efforts. On its own, the snafu could easily be dismissed as a one-off incident, but combined with other lawmakers’ remarks this week, it is becoming clear that official Washington is wrestling with the question as to whom the United States should aid in countering the global pandemic that has killed millions of people.

For its part, the Biden Administration has made the battle against COVID-19 a top priority, smartly noting that until the entire world has the virus under control, the United States will remain vulnerable. For that reason, the Biden Administration has made efforts to facilitate vaccination initiatives through funding assistance and the establishment of an international COVAX program that is meant to guarantee that every country has access to enough doses of vaccines to immunize at least 20 percent of its population. In addition, the administration has lifted some sanctioned activities to allow for blacklisted countries to import goods and services necessary for combatting the pandemic. For example, the administration announced on June 17 that, for one year, international entities may engage in some transactions with the Syrian government and other sanctioned Syrian outfits for the purpose of facilitating Damascus’s importation of goods and services needed to combat COVID-19. Yemen, too, has been a priority for the administration. During a June 24 webinar hosted by the National Council on US-Arab Relations, Sarah Charles, the assistant to the US Agency for International Development (USAID) administrator, explained how the United States was actively working to both mitigate Yemenis’ exposure to COVID-19 and provide millions of vaccine doses through the international COVAX system.

But officials on Capitol Hill appear less eager to aid in every country’s pandemic response. Rep. Lieu, as mentioned above, argued that the United States should essentially wield pandemic recovery assistance as a geopolitical weapon and support allies (e.g., India in his example) over perceived foes (i.e., Iran). Across the aisle, during the House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on COVID-19 in the MENA region, Republican members like Scott Perry (Pennsylvania) argued against providing humanitarian assistance not limited to COVID-19 to Gaza, in the wake of Israel’s bombing campaign there. While Perry’s remarks at the hearing did not touch on pandemic assistance specifically, they were illustrative of a pervasive, bipartisan obsession with wielding US assistance for reconstruction or global pandemic recovery as a mechanism for rewarding allies and hurting foes. What is disturbing is that both Republican and Democratic lawmakers are opining about who “deserves” to be helped in the face of great hardship; members are all too eager to punish innocent civilians in Iran or Gaza because of the decisions or policies of those in power there.

Fortunately, powerful members of Congress like Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) remain advocates for COVID-19 assistance funds to the Middle East. In addition, witnesses like Eman Moankar of CARE International have offered useful policy recommendations for how the United States could invest in the global COVID-19 response. However, if the United States uses pandemic recovery assistance as a tool to punish its enemies, then innocent people will suffer and many will lose their lives as a result. The United States’ reputation in the Middle East and elsewhere will surely deteriorate.

Also Happening in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

SFRC Postpones AUMF Markup. Although the House recently passed a measure to repeal the 2002 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq, the Senate has focused instead on passing its own rather than voting on the House version. The Senate version also repeals the 2002 AUMF but it goes farther in that it also repeals a 1991 AUMF against Iraq that was the legal underpinning for US operations in the first Gulf War. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) was slated to mark up and vote on its repeal measure on June 22, but after a request was made by committee members to hold a briefing on the matter, Chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) postponed the vote.

The SFRC did pass bills on June 22 as well as during a subsequent June 24 markup that could prove relevant to US policy in the region. The committee passed S. 2000, called the US-Greece Defense and Interparliamentary Partnership Act, that includes a provision authorizing the United States to establish an interparliamentary group with Israel, Greece, and Cyprus to advance engagement between the United States and these countries. In addition, the committee passed another bill, S. 1061, titled the Israel Relations Normalization Act, which seeks to make it US policy to help strengthen and grow the so-called Abraham Accords and other normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Aside from the Israel-specific legislation, the SFRC also adopted S. 93, or the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Reauthorization Act, and S. 14, known as the Combatting Global Corruption Act. An earlier ACW report explained that Global Magnitsky Act sanctions have been applied to Arab states before and its reauthorization will allow current and future administrations to sanction Arab or other regional officials for gross violations of human rights. The Global Corruption Act could have major implications for the region, too, as it could result in penalties against regional actors and governments for engaging in corrupt acts.

Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act. Senators Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) partnered to reintroduce their Saudi Educational Transparency and Reform Act, S. 2142. The bill aims to establish a reporting requirement in which administrations must report on whether Riyadh is taking steps to eliminate all forms of incitement against religious minorities from its educational materials.

Countering Hezbollah in Lebanon’s Military Act. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-New York) introduced H.R. 4073, which he calls the Countering Hizballah in Lebanon’s Military Act, that aims to restrict US assistance to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) until the US government can affirm that the LAF has done enough to separate itself from the US-designated foreign terrorist organization Hezbollah.

2) Hearings and Briefings

A Discussion with Senator Ted Cruz on Israel. On June 24, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) participated in an event, with the controversial Center for Security Policy, for the purpose of criticizing President Biden’s Israel and Iran policies. He engaged in historical revisionism of US policy toward Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories and offered little in terms of substantive policy proposals, aside from opposing every foreign policy decision made by the Biden Administration.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

Netanyahu Touts Support of Second-ranking House GOP Official. Amid reports that former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is actively trying to sabotage the new Israeli government’s relationship with the United States, he has been touting his support among US allies. For example, Netanyahu shared a picture of a letter he received from Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana), the second-ranking Republican in the House, in which Scalise called him a “great leader.”

Chairman Meeks Planning July CODEL to Israel. According to multiple conflicting reports, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is planning a congressional delegation (CODEL) trip to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories in early July. Reports first suggested a pair of Republicans would join him, but those representatives’ offices have denied that to be the case. Furthermore, some of Meeks’s other colleagues appeared not to know about the planned trip, so it is unclear who, if anyone, will join him. Meeks maintains that his colleagues are eager to participate in a trip that will see him meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials.

House Democrats Urge Biden to Reverse Trump-Era Policies. Seventy-three House Democrats wrote a letter to President Biden imploring him to reverse former President Donald Trump’s policies vis-à-vis Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. The letter specifically cites, among other things, the need to ensure that the Palestinian territories are once again considered “occupied” and to reaffirm that Israeli settlements are illegal and run counter to international law.

Democratic Congressional Leaders Speak with Israel’s Lapid. For the first time since the formation of the new Israeli government, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) held a phone call with Alternate Prime Minister and current Foreign Minister Yair Lapid. The two reportedly spoke about US-Israel relations, and the call served as a way to reinforce Lapid’s goal to improve the Israeli government’s relationship with the Democratic Party. Lapid also held a separate phone call with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) for largely the same reasons.

Egypt Caucus Co-Chairs Call for Tough Questions for Egypt’s Kamel. The director of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service, Abbas Kamel, is set to visit Washington in the coming week. If lawmakers have their way, however, it will not exactly be a warm visit. Reps. Don Beyer (D-Virginia) and Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), who co-chair the Egypt Human Rights Caucus, published a statement calling on the Biden Administration to press Kamel on Cairo’s ongoing crackdown on dissidents and the government’s harassment of American citizens and their families, and to probe Egypt’s role in facilitating the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Early Congressional Reactions to Latest Military Strikes in Iraq, Syria. The Department of Defense announced late on June 27 that, under the direction of President Biden, the military launched a round of “defensive precision airstrikes” on facilities on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border which belong to Iran-supported militias. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) issued a statement calling the strikes “targeted and proportional” and stated that Congress would like a formal notification and future briefings on the matter.

Across the Capitol, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) issued a statement that also called on the administration to brief lawmakers on the operation while expressing support for the president’s constitutional authority to act in defense of US personnel.

It should also be noted that the Pentagon cited President Biden’s Article II authority under the Constitution to justify the strikes but did not cite the 2002 AUMF against Iraq. This could potentially increase calls to repeal that AUMF since, contrary to what some critics argue, the president apparently does not need to justify attacks within Iraq with the AUMF, like the Trump Administration tried to do when it assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad in 2020.

4) Nominations

SFRC Advances Nominations for Somalia, Algeria Ambassadors. At the aforementioned June 24 SFRC markup, the committee voted to advance the nominations of Larry Edward Andre, Jr. and Elizabeth Moore Aubin to serve as ambassadors to Somalia and Algeria, respectively.

Senate Banking Committee Holds Hearing for Treasury Sanctions Officials. On June 22, the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs held a nomination hearing for Brian Nelson and Elizabeth Rosenberg, who have been tapped to serve in key roles in the Treasury Department’s anti-terrorism offices. Much of the hearing focused on efforts the two would take to help sanction and deter state actors like Iran and non-state actors like the so-called Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Overall, both nominees support the Biden Administration’s stated goal of returning to the Iran nuclear deal, but they also indicated that they would use their positions, should they be confirmed, to continue the policy of sanctions to try and change other Iranian behavior not related to the nuclear question.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

IDF Chief Meets Biden Administration Officials in Washington. Aviv Kohavi, the chief of staff of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), visited Washington for several rounds of meetings with top Biden Administration officials. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosted the delegation at the White House and Kohavi and his team also met with Defense Department officials, including Secretary Lloyd Austin III, at the Pentagon. According to multiple reports, Kohavi also spoke at these meetings to express Israel’s opposition to any US reengagement with the Iran nuclear deal.

President Biden to Host Israel’s Rivlin before End of June. Outgoing Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is traveling to Washington soon and the White House formally extended an invitation for Rivlin to meet with President Biden. Rivlin’s team is also reportedly working to secure meetings with top leaders of Congress.

2) Department of State and US Commission for International Religious Freedom

Secretary Blinken Travels to Berlin for Libya Conference. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Europe to meet with key US allies and to attend this year’s Berlin Conference on Libya. On the sidelines of the conference, Blinken met with Libya’s Interim Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah regarding Libya’s December elections.

While in Europe, Secretary Blinken will reportedly meet with Israel’s Yair Lapid in Italy to discuss the United States’ ongoing negotiations with Iran over the comatose nuclear deal.

State Department Implicated in Training Khashoggi’s Saudi Assassins. According to a new report by The New York Times, the State Department approved a contract for Saudi military personnel to receive military training through a private contractor in the United States. Unbeknownst to the State Department, however, four of the Saudis who participated in that training would later be involved in the operation that resulted in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s gruesome murder in a Saudi consulate in Turkey.

State Department Officials Urge Israel to Engage with Sudan’s Civilian Leaders. According to a recent report, the State Department, at the request of Sudan’s transitional government, has asked the Israeli government to engage with Khartoum’s civilian leaders as opposed to solely working with Sudanese military and security brass. The United States and Sudan both see such a shift as a way to deepen Sudanese-Israeli normalization.

Focus on the Humanitarian Crisis in Yemen. As mentioned briefly above, the National Council on US-Arab Relations held a virtual event with Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking and USAID Assistant to the Administrator for Humanitarian Assistance Sarah Charles to discuss the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Yemen. In addition to their remarks regarding COVID-19 support for vulnerable Yemenis, Lenderking and Charles renewed the United States’ calls for a nationwide, comprehensive cease-fire and urged the warring parties in Yemen to seriously undertake political negotiations to end their fighting. Both officials appealed to the international community, and particularly regional actors like Saudi Arabia, to increase contributions for humanitarian relief.

“Ten Years after the Arab Spring: How Has Religious Freedom Changed Across the Middle East?” On June 23, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) hosted a virtual event examining the long-term impact of the Arab Spring movements on religious freedom across the Middle East and North Africa and assessing US policy options. Panelists surveyed the status of religious freedom in the region and concluded that while some progress has been made in the past decade, major violations remain. Dwight Bashir, director of outreach and policy at USCIRF, said that US administrations have pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the region and have failed to achieve either objective. He called for a consistent US policy that works with allies to free Religious Prisoners of Conscience (RPOCs) and which applies targeted sanctions for religious freedom violations on officials from both adversarial and allied countries.

Philippe Nassif, advocacy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International USA, also implored US officials to prioritize human rights when meeting with regional leaders and to condemn violating countries publicly, with the aim of exerting pressure for change through stronger punishment of human rights violators and the discontinuation of sales of arms used in human rights abuses. Mai El-Sadany, legal and judicial director at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, agreed with her co-panelists, urging the United States to call for the release of RPOCs and push for tangible, institutional reforms.

3) Department of Defense

“Why Sustainable Public Utilities Are a Security Issue. On June 23, General Frank McKenzie, Jr., commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM), appeared at a virtual hearing to discuss public utilities as a security issue in the Middle East. Notably, Gen. McKenzie said that while environmental issues do not always top his list of concerns as a military leader, perhaps the subject should be a higher priority as continued erosion of environmental stability will only fuel more conflict. To illustrate, Gen. McKenzie noted that 12 of the 17 most water stressed countries in the world are located in CENTCOM’s area of responsibility (i.e., the Middle East). The general’s core message was clear: the United States must work with its partners and regional allies to address environmental and governance problems now if the region is to avoid more conflict and the rise of violent socio-political or extremist groups.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Turkish Counterpart. On June 19, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III spoke by phone with Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar to discuss the US-Turkey military relationship and mutual security concerns.

4) Department of Justice

Biden Administration Seizes Control of Nearly Three Dozen Websites Linked to Iran. In a joint Department of Justice-Department of Commerce move, the Biden Administration seized and blocked access to some three dozen websites linked to Iran or Iranian-backed groups in the region. The move comes as the United States, its international partners, and Iran continue negotiating a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Just recently, an Iranian official stated that the Biden Administration’s negotiating team committed to relaxing over 1,000 sanctions levied as part of former President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. The United States promptly denied Iran’s characterization.

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