Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senator Johnson Reintroduces Iran Nuclear Treaty Act. On February 16, Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) led 22 Republicans in reintroducing S. 472, the Iran Nuclear Treaty Act. The bill would require any future nuclear deal with Iran, such as a US return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), to be deemed a treaty, meaning it would require Senate approval under the US Constitution.

SFRC Leaders Menendez and Risch Introduce Bill for Middle East Cooperation to Counter Iranian Drones. On February 15, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced S. 430, a bill to protect civilians in the Middle East from Iranian drones. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would authorize and direct the US president to enter into cooperative agreements with Iraq and US partners in the Arabian Peninsula to carry out research and development, testing, and joint production on defense systems to protect against Iranian drones.

Senator Risch and Representative Roy Introduce Bill to Cut UNRWA Funding. On February 15, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID), along with 14 Republican co-sponsors, introduced S. 431, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) Accountability and Transparency Act. The bill would prevent the United States from contributing to UNRWA, the main international aid organization for Palestinian refugees, unless the secretary of state is able to submit written certification that both its employees and its facilities, such as schools and hospitals, have no affiliation with terrorist organizations, anti-Israel sentiment, descriptions of Israelis using the terms “occupiers” or “settlers,” the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, or support for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The bill originates in the 117th Congress, and on February 17, Representative Chip Roy (R-TX) introduced its companion House legislation, H.R. 1102.

Senator Merkley Introduces Resolution Expressing Solidarity with the People of Turkey and Syria. On February 16, Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced S.Res.76, a resolution expressing deepest condolences to the people of Turkey and Syria following a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that struck on February 6, killing at least 40,000 people. The same day, Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) spoke on the Senate floor, calling the devastation and loss “heartbreaking,” and praising the Biden administration’s response to the disaster.

Senators Wicker and Cardin Introduce Bill to Designate Wagner Group as an FTO. On February 14, Ranking Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) reintroduced S.416, the Holding Accountable Russian Mercenaries (HARM) Act. If passed, the bill would require the secretary of state to designate the Russian-based mercenary Wagner Group, which has been involved in the Syrian Civil War, and more recently in Ukraine, as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO). House companion legislation was reintroduced in January.

Senator Lankford Introduces Bill to Counter Iran-Russia Partnership. On February 15, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced S. 451, the Deterring Iranian Support for Russia in Ukraine and Pre-empting Terrorism (DISRUPT) Act. The bill would sanction Iranian entities that provide military support to Russia for its war in Ukraine and prevent the US president from removing Iranian entities from US sanctions lists as long as Iran is supporting the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Senator Lankford Introduces Bill to Curb American Products Going to Iran. On February 15, Senator James Lankford (R-OK) introduced S. 450, the Sanctioning Transfers and Outbound Products to Iran Act. The bill would require the Department of Commerce to issue export controls on Iranian entities supporting terrorism, aiming to prevent the use of American-made products in Iranian weapons production and use.

Senator Scott Introduces Bill to Prohibit US Funding to Gaza. On February 16, Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) introduced S. 489, a bill that would prohibit direct or indirect US funding for the Gaza Strip unless certain conditions are met. Further information on the bill is still forthcoming.

Senator Cotton Introduces Bill to Train Israeli Pilots to Defend Against Iran. On February 16, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) introduced S. 510, the Expediting Israeli Aerial Refueling Act of 2023. The bill would direct the US Air Force to train Israeli pilots in the operation and maintenance of US KC-46 refueling aircraft before Israel receives them in 2025, and aims to expedite Israel’s ability to defend itself against Iran.

Senator Wyden Introduces Resolution on Iran’s Persecution of its Baha’i Minority. On February 16, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced S.Res.74, a resolution condemning the Iranian government’s state-sponsored persecution of its Baha’i minority and its continued violation of the International Covenants on Human Rights.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Menendez Calls for Faster Visa Program for Iranian Dissidents Fleeing Violence. On February 9, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas requesting that the administration accelerate visa processing for Iranians attempting to flee regime violence. In the letter, Senator Menendez cited the Iranian government’s 18,000 arrests and its use of the death penalty to punish demonstrators in the months since protests first broke out in September 2022, and called on the US government to create a humanitarian program for visa entry modeled after the Uniting for Ukraine program.

Senators Hagerty and Van Hollen Raise Concern About Iran-China Ties. On February 14, Senator Bill Hagerty (R-TN) said in an interview that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi that same day is “a matter of great concern,” and stated that China is interested in propping up Iran’s regime through oil purchases. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD), who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with Senator Hagerty, indicated that Congress is keeping its eye on the Iran-China relationship.

Senator Durbin Warns Against Israeli Judicial Overhaul. On February 13, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee Dick Durbin (D-IL) stated that he is concerned about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plans to weaken Israel’s judicial system. Durbin, a longtime supporter of Israel, also cited Netanyahu’s efforts to undermine the prospects of a two-state solution with Palestine as one of many “troubling developments” arising from Israel’s new right-wing government. Senator Durbin’s comments follow President Biden’s warning about the Israeli government’s plan to weaken its judiciary.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on Global Security Challenges and Strategy. On February 15, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing titled “Global Security Challenges and Strategy” which largely focused on concerns related to China, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and the threat of Iran. During the hearing, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) raised questions about how the United States could leverage and expand the Abraham Accords to counter Iranian and Chinese influence in the Middle East. Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) raised a question about the international response to the earthquake in Syria, asking if the Assad regime’s allowing international aid into the country could be advantageous to US strategy.

4) Nominations

President Biden Nominates New US Ambassador to Lebanon. On February 13, President Biden nominated senior career foreign service member Lisa A. Johnson to be the next US Ambassador to Lebanon. Johnson has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), US Ambassador to Namibia, and US Chargé d’Affaires in The Bahamas. Johnson also has experience working in the Middle East, having served at the US Embassy in Beirut, as an Israel Political-Military Officer in Washington, and with INL’s office of Africa and the Middle East.

President Biden Withdraws Nomination to Human Rights Post Over Israel Comments. On February 14, President Biden withdrew James Cavallaro’s nomination to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to his previous statement that House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) was “Bought. Purchased. Controlled,” by pro-Israel lobbying groups. The day that his nomination was rescinded, Cavallaro said on Twitter that the State Department did so due to his “view that the conditions in Israel/Palestine meet the definition of apartheid under international human rights law.”

Senator Wyden Continues Delay of Biden’s Nominee for US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On February 16, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) said in an interview that he is still in talks with the Biden administration over the nomination of Michael Ratney to become the US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. In September, Senator Wyden announced that he had placed a procedural hold on Ratney’s nomination due to his dissatisfaction with the Biden administration’s handling of Saudi national Abdulrahman Noorah, who was accused of killing Oregon teenager Fallon Smart and who then fled the United States with the help of the Saudi government. Senator Wyden’s hold could be overcome by a Senate procedural vote.

II. Executive Branch

1) Department of State

US Pushes for Syrian Border Openings for Earthquake-Related Aid. On February 12, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield called on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to authorize additional border crossings to allow more humanitarian aid into northwest Syria. Following recent earthquakes, officials have warned that the Bab al-Hawa crossing, part of the UN-sanctioned aid mechanism between Turkey and Syria, would not be sufficient for earthquake-related aid. On February 13, while the UNSC was discussing how to open more crossings, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad allowed two additional border crossings to open for aid convoys. Assad’s move was significant, as it is the first time he has authorized aid delivery into rebel-controlled areas of Syria since the civil war began in 2011. On February 14, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Assad to uphold his commitments to opening the crossings and said that the UNSC would authorize the crossings if necessary.

State Department Expresses Concern About Israeli Settlement Expansion. On February 13, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that he was “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s decision to build 10,000 new housing units in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The day before, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced his government’s plans to legalize nine settlements in response to an attack by a Palestinian in Jerusalem. Secretary Blinken, who was later joined by the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom, said that the Biden administration opposes any unilateral measure that threatens the two-state solution. On February 14, far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who is set to gain control of settlement construction under the new government coalition, responded to the US and European criticism, stating that the government is committed to moving forward with the plans regardless, and adding that, “Disagreements are allowed, even between friends.” On February 15, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia and Counterterrorism Chris Murphy (D-CT) released a statement calling the decision “deeply concerning.”

Biden Administration in Talks with Iran, Qatar, and UK to Free American Prisoners. The Biden administration is reportedly in indirect negotiations with Iran, and with Qatar and the United Kingdom serving as intermediaries, to secure a prisoner exchange for American citizens Siamak Namazi, Emad Shargi, and Morad Tahbaz. In exchange for the prisoners, the administration is reportedly considering releasing billions of dollars of Iranian funds frozen in South Korea because of US sanctions. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price declined to comment on the talks themselves, calling the discussions “sensitive.”

State Department Expresses Concern About Tunisian Political Crackdown. On February 15, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the United States is “deeply concerned” about the arrests of eight critics of Tunisian President Kais Saied, including prominent politicians, two judges, the head of the country’s main news outlet, and a senior leader of the powerful Tunisian General Labor Union. President Saied called those arrested “traitors” and blamed them for recent price increases and food shortages, while Tunisian Foreign Minister Nabil Ammar said that the arrests were not political but related to national security concerns. Price said that US officials are engaged with the Tunisian government in support of human rights and freedom of expression.

US Palestinian Affairs Office Condemns Israeli Settler Shooting of Palestinian. On February 13, the US Embassy in Jerusalem’s Office of Palestinian Affairs condemned the shooting of 27-year-old Palestinian Methkal Rayyan by an Israeli settler near an illegal Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank. Alongside its condemnation, the US office called for transparency and accountability.

State Department Says New Al-Qaeda Leader is Based in Iran. On February 15, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that Saif al-Adel, the new leader of al-Qaeda, is based in Iran, commenting, “Offering safe haven to al-Qaeda is another example of Iran’s wide-ranging support for terrorism, its destabilizing activities in the Middle East and beyond.” The State Department has placed a $10 million bounty on al-Adel, a former Egyptian special forces officer whom the United Nations this week identified as former al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s successor. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian denied the allegations.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Emirati Foreign Minister, Days After Assad Meeting. On February 14, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss strengthening the US-UAE partnership and efforts to assist individuals affected by the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria. Secretary Blinken’s meeting follows Foreign Minister Al Nahyan’s trip to Syria on February 12, which marked the first visit by a senior Gulf official to the country since the recent earthquake. Al Nahyan previously traveled to Syria in 2021, which marked his first visit to the country since the outbreak of the civil war in 2011. Following Al Nahyan’s visit in 2021, the State Department expressed concern over the UAE’s “attempt to legitimize” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

US Delegation Travels to Riyadh to Meet with GCC Members. On February 15, a US delegation led by Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Dana Stroul, and the State Department’s acting Director for Counterterrorism Christopher Landberg met with Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states in Riyadh as part of the Working Group on Iran. The meeting comes at a time when White House and Pentagon officials are warning of increased collaboration between Iran and Russia on the production of lethal weapons used in Ukraine, which officials say heightens Iran’s threat to its neighbors in the Middle East. On February 16, the US-Gulf Cooperation Council Counterterrorism Working Group met and discussed counterterrorism efforts, efforts to reduce the risk of the reemergence of the so-called Islamic State, and Iran’s destabilizing policies.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Iraqi Prime Minister. On February 18, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al-Sudani at the Munich Security Conference. The two officials discussed the US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement and US support for the prime minister’s efforts to stabilize and grow Iraq’s economy.

2) Department of Defense

Department of Defense Announces Military Sale to Kuwait. On February 14, the Department of Defense announced that the State Department has approved a potential $250 million sale of a Medical Information System for the Kuwait Military Medical Command (KMMC). According to a DoD statement, the proposed sale will improve Kuwait’s ability to provide greater health security. Congress has been notified of this potential sale, as required by law.

Defense Intelligence Agency Releases Report on Iranian Drones in Ukraine. On February 14, the Defense Intelligence Agency published a report on Iranian drones, which have been used in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The report shows imagery of Iranian drones, such as the Shahed-136, that have been used both in Ukraine and in Middle East conflicts, including in Yemen.

US Military Kills Senior Islamic State Leader. On February 17, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that it partnered with the Syrian Democratic Forces in a raid killing Hamza al-Homsi, a senior leader of the so-called Islamic State (IS). The raid, which took place in northeastern Syria, resulted in an explosion that wounded four US military personnel.

CENTCOM Announces D-ISIS Raid. On February 15, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced a partnered D-ISIS raid that took place on February 10. The raid resulted in the seizure of multiple weapons, ammunition, and a suicide belt. It also resulted in the killing of Ibrahim al-Qahtani, an official of the so-called Islamic State (IS) who has been associated with IS attacks on detention centers.

Air Force Observed Chinese Balloon Over the Middle East Last Year. On February 13, Commander of US Air Forces Central (AFCENT) Lieutenant General Alexus Grynkewich stated that the Air Force observed a stratospheric balloon transiting over the Middle East late last year. Alexus stated that the balloon, which largely hovered over water, did not prompt closer attention by US forces and that AFCENT had not viewed this type of balloon as a threat to American forces. His remarks follow the Biden administration’s discovery of an alleged global Chinese surveillance balloon program.

US Forces Shoot Down Iranian-Made Drone in Northeast Syria. On February 15, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced that US forces shot down an Iranian-made drone flying over a military base that houses US troops in northeast Syria. CENTCOM reported that the drone flew over Mission Support Site Conoco on February 14 before being shot down by US forces. No group has claimed responsibility for the reconnaissance drone, although Iranian-backed militias and sleeper cells of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are based nearby.

3) US Agency for International Development

USAID Announces $2.5 Million in Earthquake Relief Supplies to Turkey. On February 17, USAID announced that it was airlifting more than $2.5 million in emergency relief supplies to Turkey. The airlift, which occurred that day, is part of an $85 million commitment that USAID has announced in response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria.

USAID Administrator Power Meets with Iraqi Foreign Minister. On February 14, USAID Administrator Samantha Power met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein in Washington to discuss USAID’s partnership with the Iraqi government. The two officials discussed shared priorities on climate, Iraq’s plans to invest in a green economy, and its repatriation of Iraqi citizens from the al-Hol displaced persons camp in Syria, a development that Administrator Power welcomed.

III. Judicial Branch

Supreme Court to Hear Arguments on Pro-ISIS Content. Next week, the Supreme Court will hear arguments involving Section 230, a controversial liability shield for online platforms, including those that have hosted pro-ISIS content on their platforms. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) argued that the failure to hold Big Tech companies liable for pro-ISIS content posted to or recommended by their platforms would exonerate terrorist sympathizers. However, others argue that holding tech companies liable could lead foreign governments to hold US diplomats and international organizations liable in their own courts for similar actions. The dispute marks the first time the court has looked at the role of social media platforms in aiding terrorist attacks.