Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Votes Along Party Lines to Remove Representative Omar from HFAC. On February 2, the House voted 218-211-1, along party lines, to pass H.Res.76, removing Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) from the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) flipped three Republican representatives who were planning to vote with Democrats on the matter. Republicans portrayed the vote as the result of Representative Omar’s past criticism of Israel, which they label anti-Semitic, while Democrats, who staunchly defended their caucus member and condemned the vote, portrayed it as a political stunt. Representative Omar responded to the vote, stating, “My critique of our foreign policy, Israeli’s [sic] policy towards Palestinians or that of any foreign nation will not change,” and vowing to continue her work toward more progressive US foreign policy, despite her removal from the committee.

Senator Cruz Introduces Bill to Terminate JCPOA Sanctions Waivers for Iran. On February 2, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced S. 256, a bill that, if passed and signed into law, would terminate US sanctions waivers for Iran dating back to the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Iran nuclear deal. Sanctions waivers, which are issued by the Biden administration, allow other countries, such as Russia, to work on civilian nuclear projects in Iran. A previous version of Senator Cruz’s bill failed to pass in the 117th Congress, but he reportedly believes that Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine will push the new version of the bill to President’s Biden’s desk. House companion legislation does not yet exist, but on February 4, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) expressed concern about the sanctions waivers.

Senators Cotton, Cruz, and Rubio Introduce Bill Targeting ICC Investigations. On February 1, Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR), Ted Cruz (R-TX), and Marco Rubio (R-FL) introduced S.224, a bill that, if passed and signed into law, would sanction and revoke the visas of associates of the International Criminal Court (ICC) who investigate the US military and its allies, including Israel. The ICC has investigated US war crimes in Afghanistan, as well as Israeli war crimes in Palestine, which the senators maintain is beyond the scope of the court’s authority.

Representative Gottheimer Introduces Resolution Recognizing Israel, Condemning Antisemitism. On February 2, Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), along with 32 cosponsors, introduced H.Res.92, a resolution recognizing Israel as America’s legitimate and democratic ally and condemning antisemitism. The resolution aims to reject “hate, discrimination, and antisemitism in all forms, including antisemitism masquerading as anti-Israel sentiment,” stand with Jewish people around the world, and condemn anti-Semitic tropes.

Representative Steube Introduces Bill to Target UNHRC’s Dealings with Israel. On January 31, Representative Gregory Steube (R-FL) introduced H.R. 687, the United Nations Human Rights Council Reform Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would prevent the United States from making contributions to the United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) Commissions of Inquiries related to Israel.

Representative Steube Introduces Bill to Sanction Iran-Backed Militia Groups. On January 31, Representative Gregory Steube (R-FL) introduced H.R. 691, the Sanctioning Iranian-Backed Militia Terrorist Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would impose sanctions on Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), an Iraqi militia that was responsible for conducting improvised explosive device (IED) attacks against US soldiers in Baghdad, and that  works with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Congressional Leaders Host Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On January 31, Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) welcomed Jordanian King Abdullah II to Capitol Hill. Representative McCarthy said about the visit, “From my perspective, our relationship, our friendship and your work to bring peace is just integral to where we go in the Middle East.” On February 1, King Abdullah II met with members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The committee’s ranking member, Jim Risch (R-ID), released a statement after the meeting, stating, “As challenges in the Middle East continue to rise, from efforts to hold the Assad regime accountable, an increase in tensions between Israel and Palestinians, to Iran’s malign regional influence, it’s comforting to have an ally like Jordan.”

Senators Say Turkey Must Allow NATO Expansion for F-16s. On January 31, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) called on the Senate to consider blocking F-16 sales to Turkey if its government continues to block Finland and Sweden’s entry into NATO. Senator Van Hollen stated that although Turkey has been an “important” NATO partner in the past, its recent threats to invade northern Syria and its efforts to block Finnish and Swedish entry into NATO have made the Turkish government an “unfaithful ally.” On February 2, a group of 29 bipartisan Senators sent a letter to President Biden stating that Congress will not approve pending F-16 sales until Turkey ratifies Sweden and Finland’s NATO accession.

Representative McCaul Urges Blinken to Address Iraqi Government Reconciliation with Kurdistan. On February 2, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken urging him to press Iraqi leaders in Baghdad to resolve differences with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) over the disposition of natural resources. McCaul wrote that, while the central and regional governments have made progress in transparency and resolution under the new government led by Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, a recent Iraqi Federal Supreme Court dispute about the country’s budget suggests an existing tension, which McCaul warned may bolster Iranian violations of Iraq’s sovereignty.

Representative Díaz-Balart Says He Will Look into US Funding to Palestine. Last week, Representative Mario Díaz-Balart (R-FL), who will chair the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Agencies, which controls US international funding that is not defense-related, expressed concern about US funding to the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). While he declined to support cutting aid to the Palestinian organizations, he stated that he plans to have the UNRWA and other Palestinian NGOs receiving US aid “looked at with a microscope.”

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden, Administration Officials Host Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On February 2, President Biden met with Jordanian King Abdullah II at the White House. During the meeting, President Biden reportedly reaffirmed US support for the legal status quo at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa Mosque compound following recent Israeli provocations at the site. While dining with the king and his son, President Biden called Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani, reaffirming the United States’ Strategic Framework Agreement with Iraq and commending al-Sudani’s government’s efforts to strengthen Iraq’s sovereignty. King Abdullah II also met with senior members of the Biden administration that same day, including with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and USAID Administrator Samantha Power.

Biden Administration Pressures MENA Allies to Expel Wagner Group Mercenaries. The Biden administration has reportedly been working with Egypt and the UAE to pressure military leaders in Libya and Sudan to expel Russian mercenaries from the Wagner Group. In Sudan, the group is associated with the military leaders who once worked with, and have since replaced, ousted President Omar al-Bashir. And in Libya, the mercenaries reportedly work with General Khalifa Haftar. The administration has increasingly targeted the Wagner Group, having recently designated it a transnational criminal organization and targeted it with sanctions. A senior Egyptian official told the Associated Press that the topic has been “at the top of every meeting” between US and Egyptian officials.

White House Proposes Middle East/North Africa Category on US Census. On January 26, the Biden Administration announced its proposal to include a new category for individuals of Middle Eastern or North African descent in the 2030 census. The proposed category follows a White House Office of Budget Management announcement that it will conduct a formal review of government standards for race and ethnicity statistics in the summer of 2024. If implemented, the inclusion of a MENA category would mean that people of Middle Eastern and North African descent would no longer be categorized as “white” in federal demographics data.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Travels to Israel. On January 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Israel. While there, Secretary Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as well as with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, leader of the opposition Yair Lapid, and civil society members. The meetings focused on last week’s attack in Jerusalem, the recent escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians, the threat posed by Russia and Iran, and recent threats to Israeli democracy. In remarks at the end of his trip, Secretary Blinken reiterated the Biden administration’s opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, legalization of illegal settler outposts, annexation of the West Bank, demolitions and evictions, threats to the status quo governing Jerusalem’s holy sites, and incitement of violence. Given the ongoing violence that occurred both during and after his visit, Blinken said that senior State Department officials would stay in the region to work on de-escalation.

Secretary Blinken Travels to Palestine. On January 31, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank following his visit to Israel and met with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian civil society members. The meetings, which took place only days after an Israeli raid on Jenin that claimed nine Palestinian lives, focused on de-escalation. Secretary Blinken called on the PA to improve its governance, expressed condolences for the deaths of Palestinian civilians, and announced $50 million in funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). The visit comes at the end of the deadliest month for Palestinians since 2015, with Israeli security forces having killed a total of 35 Palestinians in January 2023.

Secretary Blinken Visits Egypt, Calls for Defense of Human Rights. On January 29, Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Cairo, where he met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Egyptian civil society groups. The two officials engaged in discussions about the US-Egypt security relationship, the Egyptian economy, and human rights. Secretary Blinken commended Egypt for its role in promoting stability in the Middle East, and discussed with President Sisi efforts to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Palestine. On human rights, Secretary Blinken stated that while Egypt has taken “important strides” in protecting religious freedoms and empowering women, the United States will continue to urge Egypt to release political prisoners and guarantee freedom of expression.

State Department Expresses Concern about Low Voter Turnout in Tunisia. On February 1, State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel expressed concern about the low voter turnout in the most recent round of Tunisia’s parliamentary elections, stating, “The low voter turnout reflects the dire need for the government to engage in a more inclusive path going forward.” Still, Patel called the elections, which saw a mere 11 percent turnout, and which led to criticism of Tunisian President Kais Saied, “another step in the important and essential process of restoring the country’s democratic checks and balances.”

State Department Seeking Information about Israeli Raid in Jenin. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf has stated that the State Department is seeking information from Israel after the Israeli military raid that killed nine Palestinian civilians the West Bank city of Jenin last week. Assistant Secretary Leaf called the civilian casualties “regrettable” and said that the United States is seeking information to understand what happened in the incident. Leaf also urged Israel and Palestine to de-escalate rising violence and asked that the Palestinian Authority (PA) not cut ties with Israel. The PA dismissed Leaf’s demands, stating that “security coordination [with Israel] is nonexistent starting from now.”

Ambassador Nides Announces Israel Making Progress Toward Visa Waiver Program. On January 30, US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides announced that Israel has fulfilled a main condition needed to enter the US Visa Waiver Program, as its refusal rate for tourist visa applications fell below 3 percent last year. Still, Nides said that the Israeli government must “move quickly” before September 2023 to pass legislation and to address many technical gaps in the program. Nides also reiterated the requirement of reciprocity, especially given Israel’s regular imposition of travel restrictions on Palestinian Americans.

Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Visits Somalia, Calls for Donors to Prevent Famine. On January 29, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield traveled to Mogadishu, Somalia, where she met with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud to discuss Somali-led counterterrorism efforts and ways to prevent famine in Somalia. The same day, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield made an appeal to the international community for humanitarian aid to Somalia amid the global funding shift to Ukraine, and reportedly said that the United States would like to see increased aid from Gulf Arab states. Thomas-Greenfield also announced a new $41 million USAID project for Somalia to bolster famine prevention.

Sudan Releases Man Who Killed USAID Employee in 2008. On January 30, Sudan’s high court released Abdelraouf Abuzeid, who, along with other individuals, was found guilty of killing USAID employee John Granville and his Sudanese colleague Abdelrahman Abbas Rahama in Khartoum in 2008. Abuzeid has been designated a terrorist by the United States, and the State Department said that the US Embassy in Khartoum is engaging with Sudanese government officials over this matter, and called for “full accountability” for the murders. On February 1, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price expressed concern about the release, stating that the State Department is “deeply troubled by the lack of transparency in the legal process” that led to Abuzeid’s release and reaffirming that the department will continue to look into the matter.

Under Secretary Nuland Meets with Qatari Foreign Minister. On February 2, the State Department’s Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland met with Qatar Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Doha. The two officials co-chaired the Global Discussions working group within the fifth US-Qatar Strategic Dialogue, discussing the Russian war in Ukraine, Iran, women’s rights in Afghanistan, and recent violence in Israel and Palestine.

Deputy Secretary of State Speaks with Algerian Foreign Minister. On February 1, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman spoke with Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra about security and cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa. Deputy Secretary Sherman expressed the United States’ support for Algeria’s calls to de-escalate violence in Palestine and Israel, UN efforts to reach a resolution for Western Sahara, and improved security in the Sahel.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Moroccan Foreign Minister. On January 31, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita. The two officials discussed bilateral efforts to promote stability in the Middle East and North Africa and Secretary Blinken’s recent trip to Egypt, Israel, and Palestine. Secretary Blinken called for the de-escalation of violence in Israel and Palestine, and commended Minister Bourita for Morocco’s participation in the Negev Forum.

State Department Announces Recipients of Global Human Rights Defender Award. On February 1, the State Department announced this year’s recipients of the annual Global Human Rights Defender Award, which recognizes individuals from around the world for defending human rights. This year, the honorees include Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian human rights lawyer for providing legal defense services to women charged with crimes for not wearing a hijab, and a legal team led by Bashdar Hassan, an Iraqi lawyer who headed a group of attorneys that has defended arbitrarily arrested journalists and activists.

Israel-Based Human Rights Group Urges US to Cancel Embassy Plans in Jerusalem. On January 30, Adalah, an Palestinian human rights organization and legal center in Israel, submitted an objection to the Israel Land Authority over the United States’ plan to build a new embassy in Jerusalem. The organization’s objections are based on claims that the new diplomatic complex will be built on land that was confiscated from Palestinian families. The group’s objections were also paired with a letter sent to US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides and Secretary of State Antony Blinken during Blinken’s visit to Israel, urging the immediate cancelation of the planned construction.

Abraham Accords to Expand to Include Cybersecurity. On January 31, the United States and signatories of the Abraham Accords, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco, announced their plan to expand the normalization agreements to address cybersecurity, cybercrime, and ransomware. The expansion would involve increased sharing of information related to cybersecurity threats among the signatories.

US Joins European Allies to Express Concern about IAEA Investigation into Iranian Nuclear Activities. On February 3, the State Department joined the governments of France, Germany, and the United Kingdom to respond to an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report that Iran has made a substantial change to uranium enrichment at the Fordow Enrichment Plant. According to the statement, these governments are concerned that high-enriched uranium at the plant holds “significant proliferation-related risks” and has no civilian justification.

Yemen Envoy Lenderking Travels to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman. On February 3, the State Department’s Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the UAE to push for peace in Yemen. According to a statement issued prior to the trip, Lenderking was expected to encourage donors to give to the 2023 UN Humanitarian Response Plan.

Assistant Secretary Noyes Travels to Qatar. On February 4, the State Department’s Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration Julieta Valls Noyes traveled to Qatar and Albania to discuss the resettlement of Afghan refugees in the United States.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Releases Report Detailing January 2023 Efforts Against IS. On February 2, US Central Command (CENTCOM) released its January 2023 month in review, detailing US-led operations against the so-called Islamic State (IS). According to the review, CENTCOM participated in 43 operations against IS in Iraq and Syria last month, killing 11 operatives and detaining 227.

CENTCOM Forces Conduct Major Iranian Weapons Seizure. On February 1, US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported that it recently supported partner naval forces in seizure of Iranian weapons in the Gulf of Oman. During the seizure, CENTCOM and its partner forces retrieved more than 3,000 assault rifles, 578,000 rounds of ammunition, and 23 anti-tank missiles.

CENTCOM Commander Congratulates Yemen on Drone Interception. On February 1, US CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla congratulated Yemeni Chief of Defense Lieutenant General Saghir Hamood Bin Aziz on Yemen’s successful seizure of 100 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) engines, which were bound for Houthi militants.

4) Department of the Treasury

Undersecretary Nelson Travels to Oman, Turkey, and the UAE, and Warns of Sanctions Evasion. The Treasury Department’s top sanctions official, Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian Nelson traveled to Oman, Turkey and the UAE last week. In Oman, Under Secretary Nelson met with the Omani Foreign Ministry’s Under Secretary for Diplomatic Affairs Khalifa Al Harthy and visited the country’s central bank, reportedly discussing ways to curb money laundering and terrorism financing. The Treasury Department also reported that Nelson plans to warn Turkey, Oman, and the UAE that they could lose access to G7 markets if they continue to do business with US-sanctioned Russian entities.

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Drone Producers, Naval Vessels. On February 3, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned eight senior executives of Paravar Pars, an Iranian firm that manufactures Shahed-series drones. The firm has been previously sanctioned by both the United States and the European Union.

5) Department of Commerce

Department of Commerce Curbs Exports to Seven Additional Iranian Entities. On January 31, the Department of Commerce added seven Iranian entities that have produced and transferred drones to Russia to the US trade blacklist. The entities added to the blacklist include the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Aerospace Force and the IRGC’s Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization. The Commerce Department’s decision follows Iran’s extensive transfer of drones to Russia, which the latter has used to attack energy infrastructure in Ukraine.

III. Judicial Branch

Alleged Islamic State Sniper Trial Begins in New York. Last week, the trial of Ruslan Maratovich Asainov, a US citizen who traveled to Syria and served as a sniper and weapons trainer for the so-called Islamic State (IS), began in New York City. Prosecutors told jurors this week that Asainov rose through the group’s ranks, becoming an “emir” in the group. The jury may begin deliberations as soon as February 6.