Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Sessions Introduces Resolution Expressing Solidarity with Turkey and Syrian People. On February 9, Representative Pete Sessions (R-TX) introduced H.Res. 116, a resolution expressing both condolences for the lives lost in Syria and Turkey and solidarity with the Turkish and Syrian peoples following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck on February 6, killing at least 37,000 people. Last week, lawmakers from both parties released statements and gave floor speeches expressing condolences and solidarity.

Bipartisan Lawmakers Introduce Bills to Repeal AUMFs, End Gulf and Iraq Wars. On February 9, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN) introduced S. 316, a bill to repeal the authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs) against Iraq. Representatives Barbara Lee (D-CA), Chip Roy (R-TX), Abigail Spanberger (D-VA), and Tom Cole (R-OK) introduced companion House legislation. The bills, if passed and signed into law, would repeal the 1991 and 2002 AUMFs and formally end both US wars in Iraq. The House voted to repeal both AUMFs in 2021, but the matter was never voted on in the Senate. In March 2022, the Biden administration expressed support for the legislation. The lawmakers sponsoring the bills said that they also aim to prevent the future misuse of military force without congressional authorization.

Senators Shaheen and Graham Reintroduce Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act. On February 9, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced S. 356, the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act. The bill would amend the FY20 National Defense Authorization Act to elevate the US coordinator for detained IS members and relevant displaced populations in Syria, and to direct the development of an interagency strategy on the humanitarian and security concerns of displaced persons camps in Syria. Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID) joined the legislation, emphasizing its renewed importance following the earthquake in Syria. The bill originated in the 117th Congress.

Representative Wilson Reintroduces REGIME Act Targeting Iranian Visas. On February 8, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced H.R. 869, the Revoking Entry Granted to Iranian Mullahs and Elites (REGIME) Act of 2023. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would direct the Secretary of State to block or revoke US visas for Iranian officials involved in the suppression of protests. The bill is cosponsored by Representatives Claudia Tenney (R-NY), Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ), and Vicente Gonzalez (D-TX), and originated in the 117th Congress.

Senator Cruz Introduces Bill to Block Iranian Land Purchases Near US Military Bases. On February 10, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced S. 369, the Protecting Military Installations and Ranges Act. The bill would require the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States to review the purchase or lease of real estate near US military bases by persons connected to Iran, Russia, China, or North Korea. The bill was previously introduced in June 2020, and again in April 2021. Representative Tony Gonzales (R-TX) introduced House companion legislation on February 9.

Representatives Kustoff and Gottheimer Reintroduce Bill Targeting Iranian Corruption. On February 9, Representative David Kustoff (R-TN) introduced H.R. 931, the Stop Corrupt Iranian Oligarchs and Entities Act. The bill would direct the Departments of Treasury and State, as well as the Director of National Intelligence, to identify and compile a list of what it called Iranian oligarchs and entities that profit off the Iranian people.

Representative McClintock Introduces Resolution Calling for Democratic, Secular Iran. On February 7, Representative Tom McClintock (R-CA) introduced H.Res. 100, a resolution expressing support for a free, democratic, secular, and nonnuclear Republic of Iran, and condemning the Iranian government’s human rights violations and state-sponsored terrorism. Representative McClintock said in a statement that the resolution supports the ten-point plan for a secular, democratic Iran put forth by the France- and Albania-based National Council of Resistance of Iran.

Representative Wasserman Shultz Introduces Bill Commemorating Late Israeli Prime Minister. On February 10, Representative Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-FL) introduced H.R. 987, a bill that would require the Secretary of the Treasury to mint coins to recognize late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir and the 75th anniversary of the US-Israel relationship.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Lawmakers Push Biden Administration on Iranian Drone Supply Chains. On February 6, Representatives Henry Cuellar (D-TX), August Pfluger (R-TX), Brad Schneider (D-IL), and Don Bacon (R-NE), along with 57 bipartisan cosigners, sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to crack down on Iranian supply chains due to Russia’s use of Iranian-made drones in Ukraine. In the letter, the lawmakers acknowledge the administration’s previous sanctions targeting the supply chain, but ask the administration to crack down on the use of international shell companies for sanctions evasion in light of US intelligence reports revealing that the Iranian drones contain parts manufactured in the United States, Europe, and Russia. They also request a timely briefing from the administration on the subject.

Representative McGovern Calls on Morocco to Reject Extradition of At-Risk Saudi National. On February 7, Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission Jim McGovern (D-MA) urged Moroccan authorities not to extradite Hassan al-Rabea, a Saudi national, to Saudi Arabia. Last week, a Moroccan court ruled to extradite al-Rabea to the kingdom, alarming human rights organizations that accuse Saudi Arabia of having asked Moroccan authorities in January to arrest al-Rabea because of his family’s connections to anti-government protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shia-dominated Qatif Province in 2011. Representative McGovern said that Morocco must comply with international law and deny the request, saying of al-Rabea that, “His fears of persecution, torture and disappearance [in Saudi Arabia] are well-founded.” Despite these and other objections, al-Rabea was subsequently extradited.

Republican Lawmakers Call for Suspension of Al Jazeera’s Capitol Hill Media Credentials. On January 31, Representatives Jack Bergman (R-MI), Alex Mooney (R-WV), and Michael Waltz (R-FL) sent a letter to Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) calling for the suspension of Al Jazeera’s Capitol Hill media credentials. In the letter, the lawmakers cited Qatar’s use of a former CIA operative to surveil US government officials, warning that Qatar could use Al Jazeera, which it owns, to influence US policy and surveil operations in the US Congress.

Senator Risch Warns Turkey Against Efforts to Block Sweden and Finland’s NATO Membership Bid. Last week, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) warned Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of “serious consequences” if Turkey continues to block Sweden and Finland from being admitted to NATO. Senator Risch’s statements follow a bipartisan Senate letter to President Biden expressing similar concerns.

House Foreign Affairs MENA Subcommittee Announced. Last week, House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) leadership announced the Republican and Democratic members of HFAC’s subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism. Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) will remain the top Republican on the subcommittee, and Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) will become its new Democratic leader. Notably, Representative Phillips has allied himself with the pro-Israel wing of the Democratic Caucus and has previously urged the Biden administration to defund a UN investigation of Israel.

Senator Van Hollen Discusses US Priorities in the Middle East. Last week, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spoke to Al-Monitor about US policy and congressional priorities toward the Middle East. Senator Van Hollen discussed Secretary Blinken’s trip to the Middle East, saying that Israel’s new right-wing government has been “at great odds” with the US commitment to a two-state solution and Palestinians’ right to self-determination. Senator Van Hollen also spoke about Iran, stating that the Iranian government has walked away from negotiations, but also reiterating that the United States wants to achieve an end to nuclear weapons development through “diplomatic means.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

Former National Security Officials Warn House Intelligence Committee about Strained US-Turkey Relations, China. On February 8, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence held a hearing featuring former US national security officials, including former CIA Director and US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General David Petraeus and former US European Command (EUCOM) Commander General Philip Breedlove. During the hearing, General Petraeus warned lawmakers about China’s role in the Middle East and the threat posed by its close relationships with US partners and General Breedlove said that the strained relationship between the United States and Turkey is an important challenge, and requested oversight and help from Congress on the issue.

Senator Menendez Presses State Department on Iranian Oil Sales to China During SFRC Hearing. On February 9, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) held a hearing on US-China policy featuring Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner. During the hearing, SFRC Chair Bob Menendez (D-NJ) questioned Deputy Secretary Sherman about US policy regarding Chinese imports of US-sanctioned Iranian oil, pressing the State Department and the Biden administration to do more to curb the sales.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Expresses Condolences to Earthquake Victims in Turkey and Syria. On February 6, in a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Biden personally offered condolences on behalf of the United States to earthquake victims in Turkey and Syria. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also expressed the United States’ commitment to working closely with its NATO ally and assisting the victims. President Biden has directed USAID to work closely with international partners in assistance efforts, and the US government is responding by providing $85 million in USAID funding, sending US rescue personnel to the region, and deploying USAID’s Disaster Assistance and Response Team in Southern Turkey. On February 10, the White House issued a fact sheet covering the US response to the crisis.

2) Department of State

State Department Responds to Syrian Aid Sanctions Accusations. On February 8, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs responded to calls for the United States to lift its sanctions on Syria to provide earthquake relief, stating that existing US sanctions do not affect humanitarian aid, even to Assad regime-controlled regions of Syria. The State Department’s clarification pushes back against criticism from Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mokdad, who said that US sanctions were preventing the country from accessing needed medicine. On February 6, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States will not engage with Bashar al-Assad’s government, but will work through Syrian NGOs to deliver aid. On February 9, Secretary Blinken thanked Turkey for facilitating cross border aid through the Bab al-Hawa crossing and called on the Assad regime to open other crossings as well. Blinken will reportedly travel to Turkey next week.

Secretary Blinken Condemns Attack in Jerusalem. On February 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned a car-ramming attack at a bus stop in Jerusalem that killed two people and wounded five others. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded to the attack by announcing that Israel’s security cabinet will authorize nine settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The settlements were built without authorization from the Israeli government.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Urges Netanyahu Government Not to Transfer Defense Ministry Powers to Smotrich. Last week, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf reportedly urged Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu via his senior aides not to transfer important powers, including control over settlement construction, the legalization of settler outposts, and the demolition of Palestinian homes, from the Israeli Defense Ministry to the Israeli Finance Ministry, which is controlled by far-right minister Bezalel Smotrich. The deal, which was made between Netanyahu’s Likud Party and Smotrich’s Religious Zionism Party, was crucial to the formation of the current coalition government, but the plan has not been implemented yet.

Saudi Arabia Increases Prison Sentence for US Citizen. On February 8, the State Department informed the son of 72-year-old US citizen Saad Almadi that Saudi Arabia has increased his father’s prison sentence for posting tweets criticizing the Saudi government from 16 to 19 years. Almadi was arrested in November 2021 over his tweets and sentenced on October 3, 2022 to 16 years in prison. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre then criticized the sentence on October 19. Almadi’s son Ibrahim said at the time that President Biden “sold my father for oil” and that the State Department did not designate him as wrongfully detained. Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) has criticized the administration’s failure to designate him as such and said that she has pressured Secretary of State Antony Blinken to do more.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister. On February 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein in Washington. In remarks before their meeting, Secretary Blinken stated that the two leaders would discuss the two countries’ Strategic Framework Agreement, specifically focusing on electricity and energy.

Assistant Secretary Bitter Travels to Qatar. On February 8, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter traveled to Doha, Qatar, where she was expected to meet with embassy officials to observe consular affairs and lead the consular session of the US-Qatar strategic dialogue.

Secretary Blinken Speaks with UAE President. On February 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan about the US-UAE strategic partnership. The two discussed the need to de-escalate violence between Palestinians and Israelis, and Secretary Blinken thanked President Al Nahyan for the UAE’s climate cooperation ahead of COP28 and for hosting the Negev Forum Working Groups.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Qatari Foreign Minister. On February 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani in Washington. Before the meeting, Secretary Blinken said that the two officials would discuss Qatar’s response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

3) Department of Defense

AP Investigation Reveals US Drone Strike in Yemen in Late January. On February 10, the Associated Press published a report about a January 30 drone strike in Yemen’s Marib Province that killed three Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) members, revealing that it came from a US drone. The strike involved a Hellfire R9X drone, which is only used by US forces, and has been previously used in US airstrikes that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in August 2022. The White House, US Air Forces Central, and the CIA all declined to comment on the strike.

US Military Supports Earthquake Relief in Turkey and Syria. On February 8, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla announced CENTCOM’s plans to support relief efforts and those affected by the recent earthquakes in Syria and Turkey. CENTCOM established an Action Team to support victims and is working with US European Command (EUCOM), the State and Defense Departments, USAID, and its partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces to send support to Turkey. General Kurilla also expressed the United States’ sympathy for those impacted by the crisis.

NAVCENT Hosts Vessel Boarding Course for Lebanese Navy. On February 2, US Naval Forces Central Command (NAVCENT) concluded a vessel boarding course with the Lebanese Navy at the US Naval base in Bahrain. The boarding course was facilitated by US Coast Guard personnel and aimed at leading the Lebanese Navy on boarding procedures, defense tactics, evidence collection, and medical care. The course marked the first time a Coast Guard team has hosted the Lebanese Armed Forces in Bahrain.

CENCOM Commander Visits Baghdad. On February 7, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla visited Baghdad. During his visit, General Kurilla met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani and the commander of Joint Operations Command for Iraq, Lieutenant General Qais al-Muhammadawi al-Abbasi to discuss Iraqi Security Forces’ efforts to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS).

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Visits Qatar. On February 9, US Central Command (CENTCOM) Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla traveled to Qatar to meet with senior Qatari military commanders and staff. The military leaders discussed the security situation in the region and CENTCOM’s cooperation with the Qatari military.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Announces Six-Month Sanctions Relief for Syrian Earthquake Aid Efforts. On February 9, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) issued Syria General License 23, which exempts earthquake-related aid to Syria from US sanctions until August 8, 2023. US sanctions on Syria already did not target humanitarian aid, but the general license will reportedly make it easier for humanitarian funding to enter the country. According to the general license, US sanctions will continue to prohibit US imports of any Syrian petroleum products and all transactions involving the Syrian government. Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) expressed concern about the Biden administration’s decision.

Treasury Department Sanctions International Companies Involved in Iranian Petrochemical and Petroleum Trade. On February 9, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on six Iran-based petrochemical manufacturers and three Malaysia- and Singapore-based firms involved in facilitating the sale and shipment of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals. According to the Treasury Department, this round of sanctions follows its November 2022 designation of 13 firms in the UAE and Hong Kong and is part of the Treasury’s broader targeting of Iranian petroleum sales in East Asia.