Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Passes Resolution Commending the Bravery of Iranian Protesters and Condemning Regime’s Abuses. On January 25, the House of Representatives voted 420 to 1 to pass H.Con.Res.7, a resolution commending the bravery, courage, and resolve of Iranian protesters and condemning Iran’s human rights abuses against them. The resolution originated in the 117th Congress in September 2022, and was then reintroduced by Representative Claudia Tenney (R-NY) on January 9. Before the vote, Representative Tenney spoke in support of the bill on the House floor, and was joined by both Democrats and Republicans supporting its passage. After the vote, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) applauded the bill’s passage. The next day, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) reintroduced the Senate version of the resolution.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Introduce HARM Act Targeting Russian Wagner Group. On January 25, Representative Steve Cohen (D-TN) led a bipartisan group of representatives introducing H.R.506, the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would require the State Department to designate Russian paramilitary organization Wagner Group, which has been involved in the Syrian Civil War and more recently in Ukraine, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). The Biden administration announced last week that it would designate the group as a transnational criminal organization, but according to Representative Cohen’s statement on the bill, an FTO designation will allow the United States to pursue universal jurisdiction in seeking to impose criminal penalties against entities who materially support the Wagner Group. The bill originated in the 117th Congress, alongside companion Senate legislation.

Representative Auchincloss Says He Will Reintroduce US-Israel AI Partnership Bill. On January 25, Representative Jake Auchincloss (D-MA) announced on the House floor that he will soon reintroduce the United States-Israel Artificial Intelligence Center Act. Representative Auchincloss originally introduced the legislation in September 2021, alongside companion Senate legislation. The bill seeks to require the US government to establish a US-Israel AI center in the United States to serve as a research and development hub.

Representatives Tlaib and Omar Call on Congress to Pass the NO BAN Act. On January 26, the eve of the six-year anniversary of the Trump administration’s Muslim ban, Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) called on Congress to pass H.R. 1333, the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act. The bill, which the House passed in April 2021, would limit future presidents’ ability to restrict immigration and would increase congressional oversight of the process.

Representative Gooden Introduces Bill Prohibiting US Funding to Refugee Organizations. On January 26, Representative Lance Gooden (R-TX) introduced H.R. 552, a bill that, if passed and signed into law, would prohibit US funding to the United Nations International Organization for Migration (IOM), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Representative Banks Introduces Bill Sanctioning Iran’s Supreme Leader and President. On January 27, Representative Jim Banks (R-IN) introduced H.R. 589, the Mahsa Amini Human Rights and Security Accountability, or MAHSA Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would require the executive branch to sanction Iran’s supreme leader, members of his office, his appointees, Iran’s president, and any economic conglomerates affiliated with the supreme leader. Representative Banks first introduced the bill in October during the 117th Congress.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representative McCaul Presses Secretary Blinken over US Reconstruction Funding in Syria. On January 24, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging the Biden administration to adjust its recovery aid policy in Syria. In his letter, Representative McCaul expressed concern that US funding, which is often delivered through the United Nations, is being used for development and reconstruction projects in areas of Syria that are controlled by the Assad regime, warning that this could create a dangerous precedent for normalization with the regime. McCaul urged the administration to press for a universal definition of “early recovery” aid at the United Nations Security Council to ensure that US humanitarian funding stays out of regime-controlled areas.

Senate Abraham Accords Caucus Gives Briefing on Trip to Middle East. On January 24, Senator Jacky Rosen (D-NV) led the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus in a briefing about the group’s trip last week to Israel, Palestine, Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain. During the conference, the senators portrayed the Abraham Accords as successful, with Senator Dan Sullivan (R-AK) stating, “In the region, the Abraham Accords are viewed as incredibly historic.” The senators also condemned Iranian and Chinese influence in the region, with Senator Mark Kelly (D-AZ) warning, “If we’re not there, the Chinese will be there.” In response to questions about last week’s reports that she refused to meet with far-right Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben- Gvir, Senator Rosen argued that it is “not customary” for Senate delegations to meet with “mid-level members” of any government.

Democrats Prepare to Defend Representative Omar’s HFAC Seat over past Israel Comments. Democrats in Congress are reportedly working hard to defend Representative Ilhan Omar’s (D-MN) seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee after Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed to remove her from the committee over her past criticism of Israel. On January 27, Representative Omar released a statement after being reappointed to the committee, saying, “Whatever our disagreements may be as Members of Congress, policy differences alone have not and must not be cause for eliminating someone from serving on a committee.” Republicans can still schedule a House floor vote to remove Omar, but Democrats are hoping to secure a united vote protecting their party member, and recent Republican defections could prevent the GOP from removing her. Three Republicans, Representatives Victoria Spartz (R-IN), Nancy Mace (R-SC), and Ken Buck (R-CO) have said that they will vote not to remove Omar, and Democrats are reportedly targeting Representatives Brian Fitzpatrick (R-PA) and Chris Smith (R-NJ) for additional votes. Democrats would need six Republicans to defect in order to obtain a simple majority to protect Omar’s seat.

Representatives Connolly and Beyer Condemn Mike Pompeo’s Jamal Khashoggi Comments. On January 24, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) criticized former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments about murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, calling them “disgusting and totally divorced from reality.” In his new book, Secretary Pompeo refers to Khashoggi, who was Representative Connolly’s constituent, as an “activist,” and argues that the media disproportionately used his death to target Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Representative Don Beyer (D-VA) joined the criticism, calling Pompeo, “One of the worst secretaries of state in American history.”

Representative Tlaib Displays Palestinian Flag Outside of Rayburn House Office. On January 25, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) raised the Palestinian flag outside of her office in the Rayburn House office building, tweeting, “Palestinians may be banned from flying their flag under an apartheid government, but we can still proudly do it at my office.” Representative Tlaib’s display comes in defiance of far-right Israeli Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s ban on Palestinian flags being flown in public places in Israel, which was enacted earlier in the month.

Lawmakers Ask UN to Remove Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Palestine. On January 23, Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA) led a bipartisan letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres and High Commissioner Volker Türk, calling for the removal of UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in the Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese. In the letter, the lawmakers accuse Albanese of antisemitism over comments she has made about the Israel lobby in past years, and also criticize her comments about Palestinians’ right to defend themselves. The letter also blasts the UN General Assembly for being “obsessively focused” on Israel.

Senator Gillibrand Calls for F-35 Sales to Countries that Normalize with Israel. On January 23, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a member of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus that traveled to the Middle East last week and of the Senate’s Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, suggested that the United States could use F-35 fighter jets to incentivize Arab countries that have normalized with Israel to invest in humanitarian projects for the Palestinians. During an interview with the Times of Israel, Senator Gillibrand said that the United States can incentivize countries “in exchange for F-35s and other technology that they are desperate for that helps them create a regional missile defense [system] against Iran.” She also specifically mentioned Kuwait as a country that she would like to see join the Abraham Accords.

Democratic Lawmaker Suggests Congress Would Exchange Weapons with Saudi Arabia for Normalization with Israel. On January 23, an anonymous Democratic member of Congress reportedly said that they believe that Congress would support the sale of US weapons to Saudi Arabia in exchange for the kingdom joining the Abraham Accords and establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. The congressperson stated that, despite recent congressional opposition to weapons sales to Riyadh due to its human rights violations and the October 2022 OPEC+ decision to cut oil production, a majority of members would support such a deal. Last week, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud reaffirmed that the kingdom would require an independent Palestinian state before normalizing relations with Israel.

Representatives Sherman and Nadler Express Concern about Israeli Government’s Attacks on Its Judiciary. Representative Brad Sherman (D-CA) recently warned that new policies under Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government in Israel could erode US support for Israel. Representative Sherman cited the new government’s plans to weaken the Israeli Supreme Court’s ability to perform judicial review, warning that the move could undermine US support. On January 25, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) published an op-ed in Israeli newspaper Haaretz warning of the Israeli Justice Minister’s attempts to curb judicial authority, arguing that this action would threaten the shared democratic principles that underscore the US-Israel relationship.

Representative Wilson Says Republicans Will Look into Biden’s Iran Policies. On January 26, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), the republican leader of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism spoke on the House floor about the Biden administration’s approach to Iran. Citing a purported recent meeting between US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and the Iranian ambassador to the United States (although no such diplomatic representation exists), Representative Wilson urged the administration to provide information to the American people on discussions that took place between the two officials. He also mentioned US-Iran nuclear talks, calling on the administration to walk away from a deal and vowing that, “The House Republican majority is committed to providing oversight of the weak foreign policy of Biden.”

3) Nominations

Sarah Margon Withdraws Nomination for Top State Department Human Rights Position. Sarah Margon, who was nominated by President Biden to serve as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor in April 2021, has withdrawn her nomination after one and a half years of waiting for Senate confirmation. Following her nomination, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) accused Margon of supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement (BDS), a claim that Margon denies. While Senator Risch could not hold up a vote on his own, the chair of the committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ), cited the custom that both committee leaders agree together on the schedule of votes on nominees. Senator Menendez called her withdrawal this week “deeply unfortunate,” but reportedly defended the committee’s bipartisan custom.

President Biden Nominates US Ambassador to Djibouti. On January 23, President Biden nominated senior career foreign service member Cynthia Kierscht to be the next US Ambassador to the Republic of Djibouti. Since January 2021, Kierscht has served as the US Ambassador to Mauritania, and has also completed assignments in Rabat, Tripoli, and Cairo.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Condemns Attack in Jerusalem. On January 27, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre condemned an attack outside a synagogue in Jerusalem that claimed seven lives. The same day, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Vice President Harris spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, both condemning the attack and reaffirming the United States’ support for Israel’s security. The deadly attack, which also led to US condemnation from the State Department, the Department of Defense, and congressional leadership from both parties, followed an Israeli military raid on Jenin the day before that claimed nine Palestinians’ lives.

American Citizen Imprisoned in Iran Ends Hunger Strike, Calls on Biden to Help. On January 23, Iranian American Siamak Namazi, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2015 and was left out of multiple prisoner swaps under the Trump and Obama administrations, ended a seven-day hunger strike, once again calling on President Biden to help secure his release. In a new letter announcing the end of his hunger strike, Namazi pleaded, “Don’t let President Biden leave us in this abyss of misery.”

2) Department of State

State Department Responds to Israeli Raid in Jenin. On January 26, the State Department responded to news of an Israeli raid on Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank that resulted in the deaths of nine Palestinians, including an elderly woman, and wounded 20 others. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price defended the raid, stating, “We recognize the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and condemn terrorist groups planning and carrying out attacks on civilians.” Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf responded as well, telling reporters that the United States has urged de-escalation on both sides. Leaf also expressed US concern about the Palestinian Authority’s decision to end security cooperation with Israel following the raid. Palestinian authorities have called the raid a “massacre.”

State Department Commends OPCW Report on Assad’s Chemical Attack in Douma. On January 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken joined his counterparts from France, the UK, and Germany to respond to an Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) report that states that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was responsible for a deadly chemical weapons attack on the Syrian city of Douma on April 7, 2018. During the attack, the Assad regime dropped chlorine gas onto a civilian area in Douma, killing 43 and harming many more. Secretary Blinken commended the report, marking it as the ninth instance of Assad’s chemical weapons use, and strongly condemned the Syrian and Russian regimes for their role in the attack.

State Department Expresses Support for Political Solution to Syrian Conflict. On January 25, the State Department released a statement expressing its support for UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen’s efforts to reach a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The State Department shared its support for a nationwide ceasefire, fair and free elections, and the release of wrongfully detained persons, stating that UN Security Council Resolution 2254 “remains the only viable solution to the conflict.” The statement also expressed the United States’ commitment to working with its partners in the region to ensure a sustainable political solution to the war.

State Department Offers $15 Million for Information on IRGC Financial Networks. On January 25, the US State Department offered up to $15 million in exchange for information on the financial networks of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The offer follows the US Navy’s discovery of more than two thousand AK-47 assault rifles destined for the Iran-backed Houthi militia earlier this month, as well as the discovery of more than 50 tons of ammunition, fuses, and propellants for rockets in December 2022. The offer, made under the department’s Rewards for Justice Program to fight global terrorism, seeks to unveil information on the IRGC’s financial networks and its shipments to Yemen.

State Department Will Provide $72 Million in Aid to Lebanon’s Army and Police Force. On January 25, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea announced that the United States will provide $72 million in aid to Lebanon to pay the wages of the country’s soldiers and police officers. Ambassador Shea stated that the payment is a one-time allocation that seeks to pressure the Lebanese government to resolve its compounding economic crisis and carry out the fiscal reforms that it has agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund. Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-NY) applauded the announcement.

US Mission to the UN Speaks at UNSC Briefing on Sudan. On January 25, legal advisor for the US Mission to the United Nations Mark Simonoff spoke at a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) briefing on the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) investigations in Sudan. Simonoff urged Sudanese authorities to comply with international legal obligations under Resolution 1593 of the ICC’s landmark case against former Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorial regime and called the case “the first real opportunity for justice that victims of Darfur have had.”

Ambassador Mills Speaks at UNSC Briefing on Syria. On January 25, Deputy Representative to the United Nations Richard Mills spoke at a United Nations Security Council (UNSC) briefing on the political and humanitarian crisis in Syria. Mills reaffirmed US support for cross-border humanitarian assistance in Syria and called on the international community to contribute to the United Nations Syria Humanitarian Response Plan and increase aid to countries that host Syrian refugees. Mills urged the implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254 and reaffirmed US opposition to normalization with the Assad regime.

3) Department of Defense

US Military Kills Islamic State Leader in Somalia. On January 26, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III announced that, under orders from President Biden, the US military conducted an operation in northern Somalia on January 25 that resulted in the deaths of multiple members of the so-called Islamic State (IS), including IS Somalia leader Bilal al-Sudani. According to the secretary’s statement, al-Sudani was important to IS’s growth in Africa, as well as to its increased funding for operations in Afghanistan.

CENTCOM Captures Two IS Members in Eastern Syria. On January 21, US Central Command (CENTCOM) captured two members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Eastern Syria during an air and ground assault. According to CENTCOM, one civilian was injured during the maneuver, and the Syrian Democratic Forces were involved in planning and ground operations for the capture.

CENTCOM and IDF Begin Exercise Juniper Oak 23.2. On January 23, US Central Command (CENTCOM) and the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) began Exercise Juniper Oak 23.2, a joint military exercise that took place in Israel and the eastern Mediterranean Sea and that, according to the command’s statement, sought to strengthen US-Israeli readiness and improve security in the region. CENTCOM Commander General Michael ‘Erik’ Kurilla expressed that the exercise would improve US-Israeli “interoperability on land, in the air, at sea, in space, and in cyberspace with our partners,” and that it would underscore the United States’ “commitment to the Middle East.” Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) applauded the exercise, saying, “This exercise, and others tailored against Iran, is necessary to restore deterrence against the [Iranian] regime and underscores our joint response to aggression in the region.”

Israel Rejects US Military’s Request for Hawk Missiles in Ukraine. On January 25, the Israeli military rejected a US military request to send Hawk missiles to Ukraine. The Hawk system, which the United States provided Israel in the 1960s, was taken out of service a decade ago, and US officials reportedly requested the systems for use in Ukraine two weeks ago. Israel’s refusal comes on the heels of a US Department of Defense decision last week to move US arms stored in Israel to Ukraine.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions IRGC Cooperative Foundation and Iranian Officials over Protest Suppression. On January 23, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Cooperative Foundation and its board of directors, the Iranian deputy minister of intelligence and security, and four senior IRGC commanders. The IRGC foundation is an economic conglomerate that manages the group’s investments in the Iranian economy. But according to OFAC, the foundation is also used for IRGC military operations abroad, including for the IRGC-Quds Force. According to the Treasury Department’s statement, the targeted officials are responsible for human rights abuses related to the government’s crackdown on protesters, which began in September 2022.

Treasury Department Sanctions Hezbollah Financial Expert. On January 24, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on Hassan Moukalled, a Lebanese money exchanger who has worked as Hezbollah’s financial expert. Moukalled, along with his two sons and his company CTEX Exchange, reportedly enable Hezbollah to exploit Lebanon’s economic crisis to fund its institutions and work with external actors like Russia.

Treasury Department Sanctions UAE-based Aviation Firm Involved with Wagner Group. On January 26, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on UAE-based aviation firm Kratol. The sanctions are part of a larger move targeting Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group, and Kratol has reportedly provided Wagner Group with aircraft to move personnel between Libya, the Central African Republic, and Mali.

Treasury Department Sanctions Paraguayan Politicians, Citing Ties with Hezbollah. On January 26, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions targeting former President of Paraguay Horacio Manuel Cartes Jara and current Vice President Hugo Adalberto Velazquez Moreno for corruption. The sanctions designations cite both officials’ ties to Hezbollah, stating that they have both facilitated Hezbollah meetings in Paraguay and accepted bribes for these meetings.

5) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Director Burns Travels to Egypt, Israel, and Palestine. On January 23, CIA Director William Burns met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo and Egyptian General Intelligence Chief Abbas Kamel to discuss US-Egypt security cooperation. Earlier in January, Director Burns traveled to Libya, reportedly as part of ongoing US efforts to counter Russian paramilitary organization the Wagner Group. On January 26, Burns traveled to Israel and Palestine to meet with officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah.

6) US Agency for International Development

Administrator Power Speaks with Somali President, Announces $5 Million Aid Project. On January 24, USAID Administrator Samantha Power spoke with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. Administrator Power expressed condolences to the president about recent attacks by al-Shabab militants, and President Hassan thanked the US government for the $1.3 billion in financial assistance it has provided Somalia since the beginning of Fiscal Year 2022. During the meeting, Power also announced $5 million in USAID support to deliver services to Somali communities that have stood against al-Shabab.

Administrator Power Speaks with Israeli Ambassador. On January 28, USAID Administrator Samantha Power spoke with Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Herzog in honor of International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Administrator Power condemned recent violence, thanked the Israeli Government for its contributions to USAID projects supporting Palestinians, and praised Israel’s response efforts to the war in Ukraine.

7) Department of Justice

Muslim Human Rights Group Calls for Suspension of US “No Fly List.” The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has called on the Biden administration to suspend its use of the FBI’s “No Fly List” after a Swiss hacker exposed that the list is disproportionately comprised of Arab and Muslim-sounding names. Gadier Abbas, a senior litigation attorney at CAIR, stated that the leak confirms that “in response to 9/11, the FBI decided to build a Muslim registry,” and also emphasized that, “it is only a matter of time before the FBI aims its secret list at others.”

Justice Department Arrests and Charges Three Individuals with Assisting Iranian Assassination Plot. On January 27, the Justice Department announced that the FBI had arrested three members of an Eastern European criminal organization and charged them with helping to plot the murder of a US citizen who had been targeted by Iran’s government. According to the department’s statement, the US citizen of Iranian origin, who is a journalist, author, and activist, was targeted by Iran’s government over their publicization of human rights violations in Iran. The victim, whose identity has not been confirmed by the Justice Department, is reportedly Masih Alinejad, a prominent critic of the Iranian regime. White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan released a statement following the arrests, saying that the action “should serve as a warning about the long reach of the US Government in defense of Americans everywhere.”

III. Judicial Branch

PGA to Sue Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund over LIV Golf Tour. On January 25, the Professional Golfers Association of America (PGA) added Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and its head, Yasir al-Rumayyan, to its federal lawsuit against the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tournament. The PGA said in court that the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) and al-Rumayyan were directly involved in attempts to influence PGA-signed golfers to breach their contracts and join the LIV tournament. The PGA is reportedly attempting to add PIF and its governor as defendants on the lawsuit to remove their sovereign immunity in the case. Last week, US-based advocacy group Democracy in the Arab World Now (DAWN) urged Congress and the Department of Justice to investigate the relationship between LIV and former President Trump, accusing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of paying Trump via “corporate covers.”