100 Days in, and Congress Looks to Press Biden on Middle East Priorities

President Joe Biden surpassed his first 100 days in office, a time span by which successive administrations have tried to prove to the American public that they are effectively governing with the mandate they were given. Despite what many consider to be the president’s domestic successes, many foreign policy-minded officials on Capitol Hill are concerned about Biden’s foreign policy actions, including those geared toward the Middle East. This week, lawmakers used congressional hearings and off-the-Hill public briefings to assess the president’s policies and push for more positive changes. In these various events, members of Congress raised concerns about some of the many pressing issues facing the region, including Iran, Yemen, threats to US interests, and human rights.

Iran. Iran policy is arguably the most hotly contested foreign policy question confronting Washington. Democrats largely support President Biden’s stated goal of returning to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—a plan that appears to be making slow but steady progress in the wake of the latest multilateral talks in Vienna—while Republicans almost unanimously oppose that move. To debate the topic, the McCain Institute convened an event titled “The Future of the Iran Nuclear Deal” and hosted two notable members of Congress to explore the future of the JCPOA.

Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) reiterated his support for returning to the JCPOA as it was written and agreed to in 2015. He said that it is clear from the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign that it is unrealistic to expect progress on addressing Iran’s other activities of concern while the United States fails to adhere to the original agreement. Murphy argued that only a return to the deal would allow Washington to reunite the signatories to the deal—known as the P5+1—to then push for new negotiations or otherwise address Iran’s other malign policies. In addition, Murphy vocalized for the public a point that is not discussed enough in Washington: a broader deal with Iran will necessarily require concessions that supporters of the “maximum pressure” campaign have thus far failed to acknowledge.

Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), who serves as ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), took a different approach, arguing that no sanctions—including those originally levied against Iran’s nuclear program but were lifted when both parties adhered to the nuclear deal—should be lifted without “major” Iranian concessions. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) sounded a similar note in a recent op-ed in Foreign Policy and he decried upholding Washington’s commitments under a deal it helped negotiate as a multibillion-dollar “bailout.”

Despite these criticisms from Republicans, Biden’s diplomatic team pushed forward with its attempts to revive the deal and to reassure the United States’ regional partners as the efforts progress. Special Envoy for Iran Rob Malley first held a virtual meeting with officials of the Gulf Cooperation Council states while members of the National Security Council (NSC) met with their Israeli counterparts on Iran policy more broadly. Although Israeli and US officials are reportedly seeking to focus their attention on issues outside the nuclear deal, it looks early on like the Biden Administration wants to avoid the mistakes made by the Obama Administration when it negotiated the deal the first time and nearly all of Washington’s partners in the region opposed the US engagement with Iran. To this point, NSC official Brett McGurk, who attended the aforementioned meeting between US and Israeli national security officials, is leading a delegation of administration officials to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia this coming week, with the tentative itinerary also including stops in Egypt and Jordan. McGurk has been adamant in reassuring key US partners and constituencies, telling them that the United States will not lift any sanctions absent an agreement on new nuclear restrictions.

Interestingly, Washington was abuzz this week after reports that Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Bill Burns made a clandestine trip to Iraq, where he met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein and, later, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani. The CIA and Iran’s state-media both denied the reports, but Burns is no stranger to holding secret talks with Tehran, so this might be one rumor that persists as negotiations drag on. But Biden’s efforts are delicate, as opponents of US-Iran engagement in both countries mobilize against any rapprochement, especially in the wake of a recent recording of Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif went public. In the United States, the leaked recording has drawn attention to John Kerry, who was secretary of state when the 2015 deal was signed but who now serves as Special Envoy for Climate. During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Senator Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) raised the report that Kerry had spoken many times with Zarif and may have divulged sensitive information to him. Sullivan also went so far as to join some colleagues in calling for Kerry’s resignation and he asked Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines for any information and details about Kerry’s meetings that the intelligence community might have gleaned from his meetings with Zarif. Sullivan and his colleagues also wrote to President Biden about the issue, urging him to investigate.

Yemen. With its ongoing war and prolonged humanitarian crisis, Yemen has been a key priority for many in Washington after Biden’s inauguration. Despite Biden Administration promises to resume humanitarian assistance and diplomacy and end US support for Saudi offensive military operations, lawmakers and activist groups are agitating for more action now. Senator Murphy held a separate event on social media this week where he met with UN official Mark Lowcock to allow the latter the opportunity to explain why the United Nations needs donor countries to make good on their pledges to provide funding for humanitarian efforts. Although humanitarian assistance is of utmost importance, both officials reiterated that it is in no way a substitute for the dire need to reach a politically negotiated end to the fighting that will allow Yemenis to begin to rebuild their livelihoods.

Senator Murphy’s effort is one way that lawmakers are publicly leaning on the administration to move quicker on Yemen, and he was not alone this week. According to Al-Monitor, three members of Congress wrote to Secretary of Stater Tony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to inquire about support by the US government, or by US-licensed companies, for Saudi operations in Yemen. The inquiry hints that some in Washington fear that the Biden Administration is indirectly violating its pledge to end support for Saudi operations. Nevertheless, in public the Biden Administration has been very active diplomatically in an effort to make progress on Yemen. Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking is headed back to the Gulf this week to visit with officials in Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Refugees and Human Rights. Two thematic concerns animating Democratically controlled Washington involve refugee resettlement and human rights. As such, members of the Senate wrote to President Biden urging him to significantly increase the number of refugees who will be admitted to and resettled in the United States. While addressing the plight of refugees has many backers on Capitol Hill, the call for a human rights-based foreign policy rings much louder. This week, members of Congress convened the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission to explore US policy and human rights in the Middle East and North Africa 10 years after the Arab Spring. During his introductory remarks, the co-chairman of the commission, Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts), said that the United States needs a human rights-based foreign policy toward the Middle East and North Africa and that the purpose of the hearing was to receive recommendations for how the United States could fundamentally reshape its relations with countries in the region.

For those recommendations, the commission heard from Philippe Nassif of Amnesty International, Sarah Holewinski of Human Rights Watch, Samuel Tadros of the Hudson Institute, Sarah Leah Whitson of Democracy for the Arab World Now, and Stephen McInerney of the Project on Middle East Democracy. The hearing was remarkable for the fact that multiple witnesses, including Whitson and McInerney, offered strong critiques of current US policy and support for dictatorial regimes in the region. Their testimonies noticeably irritated some lawmakers for their forceful condemnation of US partners and allies.

Nassif told lawmakers that, among other things, they should ban all weapons sales and transfer of tear gas, small arms, and other repressive weaponry to Egypt and demand that Cairo release all political prisoners. In addition, he urged them to block the proposed multibillion-dollar arms sale to the United Arab Emirates. Holewinski urged similar actions, telling the commission that there should be a moratorium on arms sales to the worst human rights violators in the region. Samuel Tadros, for his part, told lawmakers that the United States should wield its soft power capabilities and support the freedom of speech and access to information for the people of the Middle East.

Whitson was adamant in her critique of US policy and sent a jarring message to lawmakers when she stated bluntly that Washington should end all military and financial support for the governments of Egypt and Israel. In addition, she argued that arms sales to the UAE and even the transfer of “defensive” weaponry to Saudi Arabia only serve to embolden these undemocratic, unelected regimes and recommended that Washington revisit these proposed sales and transfers. McInerney ended the opening round of testimony by describing US policy toward the region as “a catastrophe, a strategic failure, and a moral stain on [the United States].” McInerney’s overarching recommendation centered around ending US support for brutal dictatorships in the region and proving with actions, as opposed to just rhetoric, its commitment to upholding human rights. One way to help reorient US policy, he told members of the commission, is to ensure that the entire US government, including members of Congress, combat the influence of authoritarian regimes in Washington, all of which employ lobbyists to keep themselves in public officials’ good graces. To this point, McInerney went further, urging Congress to pass laws barring former US government officials from working on behalf of foreign capitals or organizations supported by authoritarian regimes, or serving as lobbyists.

Also Happening This Week in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Syrian Partner Protection Act. Reps. Jason Crow (D-Colorado) and Michael Waltz (R-Florida) reintroduced a bill (H.R. 2838) from last Congress known as the Syrian Partner Protection Act. According to a press release issued by Rep. Crow’s office, this legislation would “extend the Special Immigrant Visa program to Syrian Kurdish partners and their families who supported the [counter-Islamic State] mission.”

Recognizing April as Arab American Heritage Month and Celebrating the Heritage and Culture of Arab Americans in the United States. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), who is one of just a few Arab Americans in the US Congress, teamed up with Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), whose district has one of the largest proportions of Arab and Arab American constituencies in the country, to introduce H. Res. 353, which recognizes the month of April as “Arab American Heritage Month.”

Condemning the Government of Iran’s State-sponsored Persecution of Its Bahai Minority. Senators Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), Richard “Dick” Durbin (D-Illinois), Marco Rubio (R-Florida), and John Boozman (R-Arkansas) introduced a resolution (S. Res. 183) this week condemning the government of Iran for its continued persecution of minorities of the Bahai faith.

War Powers. Rep. McCaul noted during his appearance at the McCain Institute that the House is preparing to debate legislation to repeal the 2002 authorization for use of military force (AUMF) against Iraq. He disagreed with the move, arguing that the United States needed to simply update it, rather than repeal it. Democratic Senators Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire) and Chris Coons (Delaware) also touched on the topic at a separate event with the McCain Institute, though Shaheen and Coons advocated, to varying degrees, the need to repeal or reform the Iraq AUMF and the broader 2001 AUMF that is viewed as underpinning the “Global War on Terrorism.”

Providing Compensation for US Victims of Libyan State-sponsored Terrorism. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced H.R. 1429 that seeks to secure compensation for US citizens who were victims of Libyan state-sponsored terror attacks. Though the text of the bill has not been released, it is likely that this is the latest version of a bill Collins introduced last Congress, which was titled the Justice for Living Victims of Lockerbie Act, which references the 1988 downing of a Pan American flight over Lockerbie, United Kingdom. The attack was allegedly carried out on the orders of Libya’s leader, the late Muammar Qadhafi.

SAFEGUARD Act. Senator Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) introduced the Safeguarding Human Rights in Arms Exports Act (H.R. 1473), a bill that would limit the sale or export of US weapons to governments that violate human rights. Because it bars arms sales to states accused of committing genocide or war crimes or violating international law regarding the protection of civilians, the bill would ostensibly spell trouble for key US partners in the Middle East like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and perhaps even Israel, although it is unlikely that the law would be enforced against some or all of these states.

2) Nominations

Senate Holds Confirmation Hearings, Votes for Key Nominees. President Joe Biden continues to fill key positions throughout his administration. This week, two of his more controversial nominees were confirmed to positions at the Department of Defense and the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Colin Kahl, who faced early and fierce opposition from Republicans in the Senate, secured confirmation along a party-line vote to serve as Under Secretary of Defense for Policy. Later in the week, Samantha Power secured confirmation to head up USAID. Lastly, senators voted to confirm a less controversial figure at the Department of Defense, Victoria Nuland.

Then, on April 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a nomination hearing for two senior-level State Department officials. One of those nominees, Bonnie Jenkins, has been tapped to lead the department’s Bureau for Arms Control and International Security, where she will help formulate and execute Biden Administration policies regarding arms control and nuclear proliferation.

Finally, President Biden and his team have moved to place other nominees in key roles on his foreign policy team. First, the White House announced that Sarah Margon, the former Washington director for Human Rights Watch, has been nominated to serve as head of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. As a recent Foreign Policy article explained, Margon has been a fierce critic of US Arab allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia because of their abusive policies. Her confirmation would go a long way toward centering human rights as a key US foreign policy priority, but it could also strain US relations with some longtime partners. Other recent reports claim that President Biden is moving toward nominating the former State Department official and current banking executive Thomas Nides to serve as US ambassador to Israel. Finally, President Biden officially nominated Barbara Leaf, who currently serves on the NSC, to join the State Department as Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Lawmakers Champion Iran Resolution before OIAC. On April 27, the Organization of Iranian American Communities hosted a virtual event with six members of the House to highlight the support House lawmakers have expressed for H. Res.118 that calls for accountability for crimes committed by the government in Iran. As resolution sponsor Rep. Tom McClintock described it, the resolution proves to the people of Iran and the rest of the world that a bipartisan majority of the House stands with the “freedom fighters” in Iran and against the “tyrannical rulers who have wrecked that country and vexed the Middle East through terrorism and brutality.”

Worldwide Threats. On April 29, the Senate Armed Services Committee followed up efforts of the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees by hosting Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines to assess the state of global threats facing the United States. As she told lawmakers in previous hearings, the biggest threats from the Middle East include Iran and extremist groups like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS).

4) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan, Bicameral Letter Calls for Return of Austin Tice. This week, 80 members of Congress of both parties and both chambers sent a letter to President Biden urging him to continue efforts to secure the return of Austin Tice, the American citizen who is presumed to be in detention in Syria. The signatories implore the president to prioritize Tice’s release and take urgent action to secure his freedom.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Speaks with Turkey’s Erdoğan. Around the same time that President Biden made the decision to recognize the World War I-era genocide of 1.5 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire, the president held a phone call with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. While the White House readout made no mention of the topic, the move incensed Erdoğan and will clearly further chill US-Turkish relations.

2) Department of State

Assessing New Pathways for the Biden Administration. On April 29, the Middle East Institute hosted Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood to reflect on the first 100 days of the Biden Administration and the policies the president is pursuing for the Middle East and North Africa. Hood outlined how the Biden Administration’s policies and engagement strategies for the region depart from those of the Trump Administration. Under Biden, Hood said that the State Department is focused on mobilizing international and domestic actors to find a negotiated settlement to the war in Yemen, reaching a diplomatic solution to the conflict in Syria, ensuring accountability and justice for the crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and engaging with all actors in Libya to limit outside meddling to end its conflict. On the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, Hood told viewers that the administration seeks to ensure stability and prosperity for all sides in Israel and Palestine.

Secretary Blinken Introduces New Envoy, Talks with Foreign Officials. On April 23, Secretary Blinken announced that Jeffrey Feltman, a veteran of the State Department, will serve as the administration’s Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa. Feltman will help to mediate the dispute that Egypt and Sudan have with Ethiopia over the latter’s Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam project.

As for the secretary, he talked with multiple regional officials over the last week. First, Blinken spoke with Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Masrour Barzani about US support for the Kurdish Regional Government as well as the whole of Iraq. Later, Secretary Blinken held a conversation with Algerian Foreign Minister Sabri Boukadoum about US-Algerian relations and Algiers’ role in ensuring stability in places like Libya.

US Mediation Team Travels to Lebanon for Maritime Talks. Israel and Lebanon are gearing up to resume negotiations over their disputed maritime border and the State Department is sending a team to Beirut to mediate the talks. US officials expressed hope that renewed talks will result in a solution to the long-running dispute.

3) Department of Defense 

A Conversation with CENTCOM Commander General McKenzie. On April 27, the American Enterprise Institute hosted General Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., the commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM). He cited the defeat of violent extremist organizations like al-Qaeda and the so-called Islamic State (IS), deterring Iran, and great power competition between the United States and its Chinese and Russian rivals as his command’s biggest priorities. Gen. McKenzie was asked about those issues in his area of responsibility that worry him the most. Without hesitation, he stated plainly that his biggest fear is that the international community is not doing enough to address the numerous refugees and internally displaced persons who have been uprooted from their homes after years of conflict in places like Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen.

Defending Democracy. During the aforementioned McCain Institute’s forum, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley participated in a virtual interview titled “Defending Democracy” where, among other things, he discussed US military policy toward Iran. In response to reports of close encounters between US and partner naval ships and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps boats, Gen. Milley told the audience that the Pentagon is trying to discern whether these “provocative” actions, as he described them, are part of a broader strategy and officials are formulating a response to the incidents.