Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Risch Calls for Tougher US Policy Toward Iran. On December 27, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-Idaho) published an op-ed in UK-based news outlet Asharq al-Awsat calling on Congress and the Biden administration to pursue a new policy toward Iran, which he labeled “one of the United States’ most pressing national security challenges.” Senator Risch called on the US government to introduce and enforce additional sanctions on Iran, attack Iranian drone supply chains, and work with regional allies like Israel to create a “credible joint US-Israeli military option to take Iran’s nuclear program off the table.”

Lawmakers Warn that House Speaker Drama Threatens National Security. On January 4, Democratic members from the House Armed Services Committee warned that Representative Kevin McCarthy’s (R-California) repeated failure to obtain enough votes to become the next speaker of the House was hampering “the ability of Congress to function in its oversight role, presenting a clear threat to national security.” And on Jan 5, House Republican leaders raised similar concerns. The Democrats cited “rising tensions and instability in Iran and throughout the Middle East” as a key security priority since members of Congress cannot receive classified information about this and other issues until they are sworn in. Until a speaker of the House is elected, representatives cannot be sworn in and congressional committees cannot form and perform their duties. On January 5, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price echoed these concerns.

Representative Tlaib Condemns Israel’s Killing of Palestinians in 2022. On January 4, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) commented on the release of data showing that 2022 was “one of the deadliest years for Palestinians on record,” citing the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians at the hands of Israeli security forces and settlers over the course of the year. Representative Tlaib called for ending US funding for Israel, stating, “Congress must stop funding apartheid.”

2) Nominations

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassadors for the Middle East. On January 3, President Biden nominated Yael Lempert to be the next US Ambassador to Jordan. Lempert currently serves as the State Department’s principal deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs. President Biden also nominated Ana Escrogima to be the next US Ambassador to Oman. Escrogima previously served as the State Department’s deputy chief of mission at the Yemen Affairs Unit based in Saudi Arabia. In addition, the administration announced that it would renominate Michael Alan Ratney, Karen Sasahara, and Martina Strong to become US Ambassadors to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, respectively. The three nominees were nominated during the 117th Congress but were never confirmed by the Senate.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

National Security Advisor Sullivan and Secretary Blinken to Meet with New Israeli Government. On January 2, a White House official said that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan will travel to Israel this month to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to join the trip as well, and the two officials will meet with Netanyahu and Head of the Israeli National Security Council Tzachi Hanegbi. The Biden administration is reportedly hoping to find common ground with Netanyahu’s new far-right government over a return to the Iran nuclear deal and a reevaluation of the US-Saudi relationship.

2) Department of State

State Department Expresses Concern About Israeli Defense Minister’s Visit to Al-Aqsa Compound. On January 3, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price expressed concern about Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s provocative visit to the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, stating, “We’re deeply concerned by this visit. This visit has the potential to exacerbate tensions and to provoke violence.” Price said that the Biden administration has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office about the visit, but did not indicate that the United States has spoken with Ben-Gvir directly. The same day, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre commented on the visit, stating, “Any unilateral action that jeopardizes the status quo [at Jerusalem holy sites] is unacceptable, and we will continue to be steadfast on that and be very clear on that.” The city’s holy sites have historically been a flashpoint for violence—most notably in the case of the Second Intifada, which erupted after Israeli then-politician Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Al-Aqsa compound in the year 2000.

State Department Calls on Israel to Stop Homesh Settlement. On January 4, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price warned the new Israeli government against pushing for the legalization of the Homesh settler outpost in the occupied West Bank, stating that it is “illegal even under Israeli law,” and urging Israel to refrain from changing this policy. The Homesh outpost, which was built on Palestinian land in the occupied West Bank, was evacuated during Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, but Israeli settlers illegally maintain a constant presence at the site. New far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich is pushing to repeal the Disengagement Law and to officially allow Israelis to settle there.

State Department Says it is Still Against Upgrading Relations with Syria. On January 3, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States is still not planning to upgrade its relations with Syria’s Assad regime following a recent trilateral meeting between Turkey, Syria, and Russia. During a press briefing, Price said, “We urge states to carefully consider the Assad regime’s atrocious human rights record of the past 12 years as it continues to inflict atrocities on the Syrian people and to deny access to life-saving humanitarian aid.” On December 28, the Turkish, Syrian, and Russian defense ministers met in Moscow to discuss the civil war, Syrian refugees, and joint counterterrorism efforts. The next day, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-Idaho) echoed Price’s comments, arguing that a potential rapprochement between Turkey and Syria “threatens international efforts to hold Assad to account for his horrific crimes against the Syrian people.”

State Department Offers $5 Million for AQAP Leader in Yemen. On January 5, the State Department announced that it will offer a $5 million reward for information on the whereabouts of Ibrahim al-Banna, the last surviving founding member of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen. The group remains active in Yemen and was responsible for the deaths of at least 21 Yemeni troops in a September 2022 attack on a security post in the southern part of the country.

State Department Offers $10 Million for Al Shabab Leader Behind 2020 Attack. On January 5, the State Department announced that it will offer a $10 million reward for information on the whereabouts of Maalim Ayman, a leader of Jaysh Ayman, a unit within the terrorist organization al-Shabab, which operates in Kenya and Somalia. Ayman is reportedly responsible for the January 2020 attack on a military base near Manda Bay, Kenya, which resulted in American and Kenyan casualties and the destruction of American aircraft and vehicles.

US Citizen and Bidoon Activist Deported from Kuwait. On January 3, Kuwaiti activist and American citizen Mona Kareem was deported from Kuwait after attempting to enter the country. Kareem has run a website advocating for the Bidoon, a stateless minority group in Kuwait that is deprived of citizenship and its benefits. The State Department has not commented on Kareem’s deportation.

Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Amr Calls for Increased Israeli Integration. The State Department’s Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr spoke in an interview about the importance of Israel’s regional integration in the Middle East in order to improve the day-to-day lives of Palestinians. In a December interview with Jewish Insider, Amr stated, “Israel’s growing integration and broad-based opportunities it creates—this is something that we can leverage to improve the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza.” During the interview, Amr suggested that in his new position he is less focused on a peace process between Israel and Palestine, and is focusing instead on improving living conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

US Yemen Envoy Lenderking Travels to Jordan and Saudi Arabia. On January 3, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Jordan and Saudi Arabia to advance a UN-led truce extension and expansion in Yemen. In announcing Lenderking’s travel, the State Department urged the Houthis to cooperate with the United Nations to end the crisis.  

US Returns 2,700-Year-Old Artifact to Palestinian Authority. On January 5, Chief of the US Office of Palestinian Affairs George Noll met with Palestinian Authority officials in Bethlehem to return a 2,700-year-old spoon that dates to the Assyrian civilization. The artifact had been previously stolen from Palestine and then illegally sold. Noll called the exchange “a historic moment between the American and Palestinian people.”

State Department Recognizes Sudan’s National Day. On January 1, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commemorated the occasion of Sudan’s National Day and celebrated the country’s 67 years of independence. In his statement, Secretary Blinken also welcomed the December 5 announcement of a framework political agreement for Sudan, stating that the United States will continue to support a Sudanese-led path to democracy.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Jordanian Foreign Minister. On January 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Jordanian Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi to discuss the US-Jordan relationship and regional stability. The phone call followed Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s controversial visit to Jerusalem’s holy sites, and Secretary Blinken stressed the importance of Jordan’s role in preserving the status quo as custodian of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The two leaders also discussed the Negev Forum, the conflict in Syria, and the fourth Memorandum of Understanding of Strategic Partnerships between Jordan and the United States.

US Delegation Travels to United Arab Emirates to Participate in Negev Forum. On January 9, a delegation of US agency representatives traveled to the United Arab Emirates to participate in the first meeting of the Negev Forum Working Groups. The event will include representatives from Bahrain, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates, and will work to plan the March 2022 Negev Summit, which aims to integrate Israel regionally and strengthen the economy and quality of life for Palestinians. Jordan, the only other Arab country with diplomatic ties with Israel, will be notably absent from the meetings.

US Envoy for Iran Malley Condemns Public Execution of Protesters. On January 7, US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley condemned the Iranian government’s execution of two protesters, Mohammad Mehdi Karami and Sayed Mohammad Hosseini, which took place the same day. Malley stated, “These executions must stop. We and others across the globe will continue to hold Iran’s leadership accountable.”

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Speaks with Israeli Minister of Defense. On January 4, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, congratulating him on his new appointment. The two leaders discussed strategies to counter Iran and to build upon the Abraham Accords to increase Israel’s regional integration. Secretary Austin emphasized the importance of avoiding policies that undermine stability in the West Bank, but also reaffirmed his commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense.

US Army Awards $426 Million Egyptian Helicopter Contract to Boeing. On January 3, Boeing announced that it has secured a $426 million contract to build twelve CH-47F Chinook helicopters for the Egyptian Air Force. The deal is part of the Biden administration’s $2.6 billion arms sale to Egypt, which was approved in May 2022, and Egypt reportedly still has the option to purchase 11 more helicopters.

US Coalition Forces in Syria Targeted by Rocket Fire. On January 4, US Central Command Spokesperson Colonel Joe Buccino announced that two rockets were fired at US and other coalition forces in northeastern Syria earlier that day. The attack resulted in no injuries and no damage to the base that it was targeting.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions Suppliers of Iranian Drones to Russia. On January 6, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions targeting six executives and board members of Qods Aviation Industries (QAI), an Iranian drone manufacturer. According to the statement, QAI has designed and produced Iranian drones that Russia has used in its war in Ukraine. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen commented on the announcement, saying, “The Kremlin’s reliance on suppliers of last resort like Iran shows their desperation in the face of brave Ukrainian resistance and the success of our global coalition in disrupting Russian military supply chains and denying them the inputs they need to replace weapons lost on the battlefield.”

Treasury Department Works with Turkey to Sanction Key IS Financial Facilitators. On January 5, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions targeting four individuals and two entities in Turkey who have been involved in the financial facilitation network of the so-called Islamic State (IS). The sanctions are concurrent with the Turkish Ministry of Treasury and Finance’s attempts to freeze the assets of this financial network. The four sanctioned individuals have facilitated money transfers to IS using the two Turkey-based entities.

Department of Defense Prohibits Israeli Pilots from Flying F-35 Fighter Jets. The Department of Defense and US intelligence agencies have reportedly banned Israeli pilots from flying F-35 fighter jets because of potential informational technology leaks. The Israeli Air Force responded to the request favorably, removing their pilots from F-35 Adir aircraft—a stealth plane used for intelligence gathering and attack missions.

5) US Committee on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Releases Report on Religious Freedom in Iraq. On January 3, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report on religious freedom in Iraq amid the country’s political crisis. The report cites concerns over how the Iraqi government’s instability prevents it from adequately addressing the persecution of religious minorities such as Yazidis and Christians. For example, the report cites the March 2021 Yazidi Survivors Law, which was intended to provide reparations and support for survivors of the Yazidi genocide, but which has not been implemented due to the Iraqi government’s recent political crisis. In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department place Iraq on its special watch list for having engaged in violations of religious freedom.

USCIRF Releases Report on Religious Freedom in Saudi Arabia. On December 28, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released a report on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia in 2022. The report describes “systemic repression of peaceful religious dissent,” including that practiced by minorities like Shia Muslims, citing a March 2022 mass execution in Saudi Arabia that included 41 Shia Muslims who were killed on charges including holding “deviant beliefs.” On December 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken designated Saudi Arabia as a country of particular concern under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.