Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Congress

1) Legislation

Global Peacebuilding Act. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) introduced a bill, H.R. 5948, in an effort to reorient US budgetary priorities when it comes to foreign aid. This bill would reallocate $5 billion from the Overseas Contingency Fund, which is used under the direction of the secretary of state for peacebuilding. It is but another piece of legislation Omar has introduced in recent weeks to improve US diplomatic efforts and prepare Washington to rely less on its massive military capabilities to address problems abroad, including in the Middle East and North Africa.

Zero Tolerance for Unlawful Detentions of US Citizens in Lebanon Act. This week, Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S. 3327 to impose sanctions on “Lebanese officials who are involved in the unlawful detainment, arrest or abuse of any United States citizen in Lebanon.” Though Shaheen, who led in drafting the legislation, did not specifically name her constituent, Amer Fakhoury, it is clear the bill is in response to Beirut’s imprisonment of him since September 2019 on charges related to his previous work with the now-defunct South Lebanon Army. Should the bill become law, the secretary of state would have to furnish a list of current or former Lebanese officials who are credibly believed to have a role in the unjust detention of US citizens. Any and all members of the list would then be denied entry to the United States.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Reps. Pocan and Dingell Lead Letter on Humanitarian Aid to Gaza. On February 19, Democratic Reps. Mark Pocan (Wisconsin) and Debbie Dingell (Michigan) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that the administration restore humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza. Signed by an additional 31 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, the letter details the terrible conditions under which millions of Palestinians live in the blockaded strip and calls on Pompeo to support an end to Israel’s military and economic siege of the territory.

Rep. Abraham Visits Syria. During Congress’s recess, Rep. Ralph Abraham (R-Louisiana) made an unannounced trip to Syria. He traveled to northeastern Syria, unbeknownst to the State Department, to visit with Syria’s Kurdish fighters and assess the dangers facing Syria’s Christians and other religious minorities. A staunch supporter of President Donald Trump, Abraham claimed his visit was to gather and “bring back the right information” to the White House so the president understands the importance of the US-Kurdish partnership in Syria.

After Criticizing Rep. McCollum, AIPAC Now in Public Row with Senator Sanders. This week, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who is leading the field in the Democratic Party’s presidential primaries, tweeted out messages explaining his decision to skip the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference next week. AIPAC took umbrage at Sanders’s remarks and now finds itself in a row with yet another popular liberal member of Congress in Washington. Last week, as Arab Center Washington DC reported, AIPAC publicly sparred with Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota). The Sanders-AIPAC row grows from the group’s continued willingness to provide platforms to unsavory, even bigoted, speakers from around the world and Sanders’s unwillingness to legitimize their activities as the Democratic Party frontrunner. Sanders likely further alienated the pro-AIPAC crowd at this week’s presidential debate by calling the AIPAC-aligned Israeli prime minister a “reactionary racist.”

Senators Graham, Menendez Want Gulf-Wide Nuclear Deal. On a return flight from the Munich Security Conference earlier this month, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) detailed to The Washington Post their plan to propose a broad international nuclear agreement to curtail not just Iran’s nuclear energy program but also any future programs for the Arab states of the Gulf. According to the senators, the plan would have Iran and its Gulf Arab neighbors sign an agreement with members of the international community to guarantee them access to everything they would need for civilian nuclear energy; in exchange, the Gulf states and Iran would agree never to pursue a nuclear weapon, while Iran would also receive sanctions relief. Graham previously made a similar proposal and he and Menendez are aware of the difficulties of such an effort; in fact, they may even be hoping for the initiative to fail. Both lawmakers made similar remarks about the fact that an Iranian rejection (Iran refused similar entreaties from Europeans 15 years ago) might convince the international community to impose even harsher sanctions on Tehran. Regardless of their intent, the report says the two will introduce legislation in the future in pursuit of this idea.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Shakes Up National Security Team. This week, President Trump implemented three moves that many suspect will have major implications on how the president’s national security team operates moving forward. First, and most importantly, he tapped Richard Grenell to serve, the US Ambassador to Germany, as the acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The DNI oversees the activities of the country’s 17 intelligence agencies and the position has long been held by individuals viewed to be largely above partisan politics. However, Grenell is perceived by many as a fierce partisan who, instead of providing a sober voice for the president, will uncritically indulge the president’s worst impulses.

At the same time, Trump’s team reassigned Victoria Coates away from the National Security Council, where she had previously overseen Middle East and North Africa policy. There, as the deputy national security advisor where she focused on the Middle East, Coates was the subject of rumors that she wrote a book called Anonymous that is critical of the Trump White House. Lastly, this week brought the official end to John Rood’s tenure at the Department of Defense. Rood served as the under secretary for policy, a position in which he clashed with other members of President Trump’s national security team on several issues, including the administration’s decision to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist group. In their totality, these moves have longtime national security analysts fretting about the politicization of the president’s national security apparatus. Many fear the president will feel unshackled to pursue more and more aggressive policies abroad.

Trump Extends Obama-era Sanctions on Qadhafi’s Family While GNA Asks for Base. This week, Middle East Eye reported that President Trump formally extended sanctions on members of the late Libyan ruler Muammar Qadhafi’s family. Trump notified Congress that he would extend an Obama-era national emergency designation that froze Qadhafi’s assets and those of his closest confidants and family members. The White House said the move was critical for assuring Libyan state assets are not diverted to further destabilize the country and that the national emergency would remain in effect for one more year. At the same time that Trump was extending the national emergency designation, a senior member of Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA) proposed that the United States establish a military base in Libya. The GNA’s minister of the interior, Fathi Bashagha, floated the idea as a countermeasure to Russia’s increased presence in Libya.

US-Israel Annexation Committee Tours Occupied Territories. This week, the joint US-Israeli committee overseeing Israel’s illegal annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank toured the area around Ariel, south of Nablus, in preparation for mapping and annexing the land. The tour included US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, whose work with the committee places him in a remarkable position: as a diplomat directly involved in planning the violation of international law.

2) Department of State

Pompeo Rounds out Gulf Visit Meeting with Saudi, Omani Officials. Secretary of State Pompeo finished his robust international travel with stops in Saudi Arabia and neighboring Oman. In Riyadh, Pompeo met with King Salman and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and another son, Deputy Defense Minister Khalid bin Salman. The main purpose for these meetings was to coordinate US-Saudi policies in the region, including countering Iran’s influence and deterring its destabilizing activities. The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, John Abizaid, appeared alongside the secretary to elaborate on US-Saudi relations. He expressed support for what he considered Riyadh’s successes: the “reforms” to social life in the kingdom and the suppression of “Sunni Islamic extremism” within Saudi borders.

In Muscat, Pompeo met with Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said for the first time since the latter assumed the role of leader of Oman. The two discussed issues relevant to the US-Omani relationship like promoting stability in the Gulf by mending the rift between fellow Gulf Cooperation Council states and ending the ongoing war in Yemen.

Upon returning to Washington, Secretary Pompeo held a call with Iraq’s Prime Minister-designate Mohammed Tawfiq Allawi. Pompeo gave Allawi a list of priorities the United States wants Baghdad to address, saying it was part of Washington’s commitment to a “strong, sovereign, and prosperous Iraq.”

State Department Briefing on Yemen. On February 25, the State Department provided a briefing on developments in Yemen. In the administration’s view, there are still actors destabilizing the situation there while US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are benevolent actors for stability. The prospects of ending the war and the resultant humanitarian crisis in Yemen are still bleak at the moment, however, and the State Department official urged all sides to engage with UN Envoy Martin Griffiths to find a solution to the conflict. Interestingly, the official undermined a critical argument frequently put forth by Secretary Pompeo and Special Envoy Brian Hook about the success of the US “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In their words, the sanctions regime has stripped Tehran of the money it needs to foment chaos in the region, including Yemen; however, this official conceded that Tehran’s tactical support for the Houthis in Yemen has not diminished and, in fact, has likely increased.

3) Department of the Treasury

US Implements New Sanctions on Iranian Regime, Hezbollah Figures. On February 20, the Trump Administration’s special envoy for Iran, Brian Hook, held a press conference to announce that the Treasury Department would levy new sanctions against elements of Iran’s ruling regime. These target five members of a body of the Guardian Council known as the Elections Supervision Committee. They are appointed by Iran’s supreme leader and responsible for vetting officials who hope to run for elections in Iran. Ahead of February’s majlis elections, the committee disqualified thousands of would-be candidates.

The Trump Administration said that due to the disqualifications—a large portion of which are of candidates considered moderate in the Iranian political context—the Tehran regime was depriving the Iranian people of “free and fair elections.” The five individuals now subjected to sanctions all serve on the Guardian Council and/or Elections Supervision Committee, including Ahmad Jannati, who serves as the secretary of the Guardian Council and is on the committee that would be responsible for choosing a new supreme leader in the event of Khamenei’s death.

In addition—and not directly affecting Iran—the Treasury Department announced this week that it would be sanctioning 15 Lebanese entities for supporting the Tehran-backed Hezbollah. Some are accused of funneling money to the families of suicide bombers while others are said to have helped the group avoid scrutiny of its finances.

Secretary Mnuchin Travels to Saudi Arabia for G20 Meeting, Then Goes to UAE, Qatar. This week, Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin traveled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar for a host of meetings with finance ministers from around the world. First, Mnuchin visited Riyadh for a meeting of G20 finance ministers and Central Bank governors. There, he met with Saudi Minister of Finance Mohammed Al-Jadaan and his colleague Ahmed al-Kholifey, who serves as the kingdom’s Monetary Authority governor. Mnuchin spoke with both about US-Saudi economic and security relations and actions the kingdom has taken to counter terrorism and illicit financing. Mnuchin also took time to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the chairman of Riyadh’s state oil company, Aramco.

After Saudi Arabia, Mnuchin flew to Abu Dhabi for meetings with the UAE’s finance minister, Central Bank governor, national security advisor, and head of the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Mnuchin spoke with these officials about topics of mutual concern, including anti-terrorism and illicit finance efforts, joint economic ventures, and the overall regional economic outlook. In Qatar, too, Mnuchin met with ministry officials to discuss further US-Qatari cooperation on issues of mutual interest.

Iraq, Turkey Subjected to Sanctions for Supporting Iranian Missile Program. In addition to the new sanctions against Iranian regime officials, the Trump Administration also sanctioned entities from Turkey and Iraq, as well as China and Russia, for their roles in supporting Iran’s missile development program.

4) Department of Energy

Secretary Brouillette Meets with KRG Prime Minister in Munich. There were a number of meetings between US officials and others representing different entities from the Middle East on the margins of last week’s Munich Security Conference. Notably, US Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette met with Masrour Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). On energy matters, Brouillette lauded the KRG for its effort to bring stability and relative prosperity to the Kurdistan region of Iraq, stating that the area exports more oil than the war-ravaged Libya.

III. Judicial Branch

SCOTUS Hears Opati v. Sudan. As the Supreme Court returned to business to hear oral arguments, the court’s justices were tasked with considering arguments made in the case Opati v. Sudan. This case stems from the 1998 twin bombings of US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania that killed hundreds. In the immediate aftermath, the United States targeted al-Qaeda in Sudan and Afghanistan, the former for having provided al-Qaeda’s founder, Osama bin Laden, “material support” in the form of safe haven just a few years before. Families of the victims of the attacks have long wanted to hold the Sudanese government responsible for the attacks, but now that Sudan is undergoing a political transition away from the regime that harbored bin Laden, the justices’ decision could go a long way in determining the relationship between Washington and Khartoum. The latter hopes to be removed from the state sponsors of terrorism list and has made efforts recently to compensate relatives of victims of other attacks for which it was held partly responsible. It is unclear, however, if the justices will hold the current transitional government responsible for the actions of the government of over 20 years ago.