Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

On February 9, the US Senate commenced the second impeachment trial of former President Donald J. Trump to examine his role in inciting the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol complex. The House of Representatives had actually voted to impeach then-President Trump on January 13 for engaging “in high crimes and misdemeanors by inciting violence against the government of the United States.” The Senate trial was set for January 19 by then-Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky), one day before the expiry of Trump’s term in office. After an agreement between McConnell and the new majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York), the House delivered the article of impeachment to the Senate on January 25, initiating the trial that  began on February 9. The accompanying report explains the procedures of the impeachment hearings and the prospects regarding Trump’s ability to hold public office in the future.

1) Legislation

Expressing Senate’s Opposition to the JCPOA. Three Senate Republicans introduced S. Res. 31 in an attempt to put senators on the record about whether they approve of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as it is currently constructed. While it would not be binding, the resolution would gauge the Senate’s interest in President Joe Biden’s bid to rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran.

US-Israel PTSD Collaborative Research Act. Reps. Michael Waltz (R-Florida) and Elaine Luria (D-Virginia) spearheaded a bipartisan effort to reintroduce legislation to promote cooperation between the United States and Israel on efforts to treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). H.R. 852 would “leverage research assets and experiences of the U.S. and Israel to develop best practices in the research, diagnosis and treatment of PTSD.”

Iranian Arms Transfer Prevention Act. Republican Reps. Don Bacon (Nebraska) and Joe Wilson (South Carolina) introduced H.R. 857 in an effort to “limit Iran’s malign influence in the Middle East.” The legislation would require that the US government sanction all individuals or entities that facilitate the trade of conventional arms to or from Iran. Due to the fact that the UN arms embargo on Iran expired in October 2020, Reps. Bacon and Wilson want to dissuade states like Russia and China from selling conventional arms to Iran despite the ban’s expiration.

Stop Evasion of Iran Sanctions Act. Rep. Bryan Steil (R-Wisconsin) reintroduced a bill (H.R. 901) to stop entities from using the European “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges,” or INSTEX, in trading with Iran. INSTEX was created by three European members of the JCPOA to allow trading with Iran despite the United States’ withdrawal from the deal and imposition of unilateral sanctions to prevent Tehran from trading with the international community. According to Steil’s press release, the goal of this legislation is to deter international banking bodies from allowing entities to circumvent US sanctions on Iran, in hopes that such actions will deprive the Iranian government from securing funds.

Stop Corrupt Iranian Oligarchs and Entities Act. Reps. David Kustoff (R-Tennessee) and Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) reintroduced H.R. 819 to direct the US government to “identify and compile a list of Iranian oligarchs and entities that are ultimately profiting off the Iranian people.” The two seek to highlight the ways in which Iranian political elites manipulate the country’s economy to benefit them and their political proxies throughout the region.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Republicans Write to Biden Administration about US Embassy in Jerusalem, JCPOA. Nearly 100 Congressional Republicans wrote to the Biden Administration this week urging the president and his team to preserve former President Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Ninety-seven House Republicans sent their letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him not to reverse the Trump Administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s “eternal capital.” Republican Senator Bill Hagerty (Tennessee), meanwhile, sent an individual letter to President Biden calling on him to deliver a public affirmation of his administration’s commitment to leaving the US embassy in the disputed city.

In a similar effort, Senate Republicans offered an amendment to Senate Democrats’ reconciliation resolution that sought to express Senate support for keeping the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem. The measure passed with overwhelming support, with only Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), and Tom Carper (D-Delaware) voting against it.

In other correspondence, 120 House Republicans wrote to President Biden urging him not to rejoin the JCPOA as it currently stands. In addition, Oregon Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley also wrote to Secretary of State Blinken asking the administration to hold Saudi Arabia responsible for its efforts to help Saudi nationals flee the United States when under investigation.

3) Nominations

Senate Advances UN, Energy, Pentagon Nominees. The Senate continued its nomination process for President Biden’s cabinet nominees. The Energy and Natural Resources Committee approved the nomination of Jennifer Mulhern Granholm as Secretary of Energy and the Foreign Relations Committee advanced Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s nomination for the next ambassador to the United Nations. While neither will oversee Middle East policy exclusively, both will likely have roles in the Biden Administration’s broader engagement with states in the region.

Meanwhile, the full Senate agreed to confirm Kathleen Hicks as the Department of Defense’s second highest ranking official. Additionally, President Biden formally nominated William J. Burns to serve as the next director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Announces End to Support for Saudi War in Yemen. In a speech at the State Department on February 4, President Joe Biden announced his intention to end Washington’s support for the Saudi-led coalition’s war in Yemen. According to his statement, the United States will no longer lend “support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen, including relevant arms sales.” President Biden also said that due to ongoing attacks against Saudi Arabia, the United States will continue to help Riyadh “defend its sovereignty.”

NSC Reviews Iran Policy. According to a report by Axios, the National Security Council met on February 5 to formulate the Biden Administration’s policy toward Iran and its nuclear energy program. The meeting was one of “principals,” meaning that President Biden’s cabinet-level officials—and presumably acting cabinet officials—were in attendance, and indicating that Iran policy, in some respects, is a top level, administration-wide priority.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Holds Calls with Arab and European Officials on MENA Policy. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was active this week speaking with foreign counterparts about issues relevant to Middle East security. First, he spoke with the UAE’s Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan about the Emirates’ diplomatic agreement with Israel and broader regional security concerns. Blinken then held a virtual meeting with the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and the United Kingdom about, among other things, Iran’s nuclear weapons program and, presumably, efforts to revive the JCPOA. Finally, the secretary of state spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok about issues pertinent to the two states.

President Biden’s State Department Announces New Policies. Reversing the outgoing Trump Administration’s policies on a host of issues, the State Department announced this week that it would rescind the previous administration’s designation of Yemen’s Houthi rebels as a foreign terrorist organization, rejoin the UN Human Rights Council, and appoint a special envoy to lead US engagement with Yemen.

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