Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

House Rejects Representative Gaetz’s Syria War Powers Resolution. On March 8, the House voted 321-103, with 11 members abstaining, to reject H.Con.Res.21, Representative Matt Gaetz’s (R-FL) Syria War Powers Resolution to remove US forces from Syria. The vote did not fall along party lines, and a lengthy debate that preceded the vote revealed diverse views from both Republicans and Democrats supporting and opposing the legislation. Notably, both the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), voted against the resolution.

Representative Omar Introduces Bill Amending US Weapons Sale Policy. On March 8, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) introduced H.R.1471, the Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act (SAHRAA). The bill, if passed and signed into law, would impose universal human rights and humanitarian conditions on US security cooperation to foreign countries, preventing weapons sales to regimes that cross certain human rights thresholds.

Senate Judiciary Members Reintroduce NOPEC. On March 7, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Mike Lee (R-UT), and committee chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) reintroduced S.678, the No Oil Producing and Exporting Cartels (NOPEC) Act. The bill would authorize the Justice Department to sue members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) for antitrust violations and price manipulation. The bill was originally introduced in March 2021, and the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 17-4 to advance the legislation in May 2022, demonstrating its bipartisan support.

SFRC Advances Iraq AUMF Bill and Nomination of US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On March 8, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) voted 13-8 to advance S. 316, a bill to repeal the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) in Iraq. The legislation is expected to be advanced to the Senate floor in the coming weeks and has gained increasingly bipartisan support. The committee also voted to advance the nomination of Michael Ratney to become the next US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

Senator Cotton Reintroduces Taylor Force Martyr Payment Prevention Act. On March 7, Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) reintroduced S.691, the Taylor Force Martyr Prevention Payment Act. In 2018, bipartisan House and Senate majorities passed the Taylor Force Act, which was named after a US Army veteran who was killed in a 2016 attack in Tel Aviv, Israel, and which targeted US funding to the Palestinian Authority (PA) over the authority’s martyr fund. In 2021, Republican lawmakers delayed $75 million in Biden administration funding to the Palestinians, arguing that it was a violation of the law. Senator Cotton’s reintroduced bill expands on the Taylor Force Act and aims to target foreign banks that process the PA’s martyr payments.  Representative Doug Lamborn (R-CO) also reintroduced House companion legislation the same day. When introducing the bill on the Senate floor, Senator Cotton slammed Democrats for their position toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and also decried recent criticism of his government’s judicial overhaul.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Democrats Write to President Biden, Israeli Government, Opposing Judicial Reform in Israel. Representative Rose DeLauro (D-CT), the most powerful House Appropriations Committee Democrat, is reportedly finalizing a letter with signatures from 92 House Democrats calling on President Biden to “use all diplomatic tools available” to stop Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform. The letter also reportedly expresses concern about rising violence in the occupied West Bank and threats of partial or full Israeli annexation of the territory. In a separate letter led by Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-NY) and Brad Schneider (D-IL), 16 Jewish House Democrats wrote directly to Israeli leaders warning that the judicial overhaul “could fundamentally alter the democratic character of the State of Israel.” Meanwhile, Representatives Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) and Jared Moscowitz (D-FL) have come out against their Democratic colleagues, urging them not to “intervene in ongoing negotiations of a key democratic ally.” This week, 14 US Senators from both parties expressed differing views about US policy and the judicial reforms.

Senator Menendez Calls for IAEA Resolution Censuring Iran. On March 7, Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) called on the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to adopt a resolution censuring Iran during its Board of Governors meeting that week. In a statement, Senator Menendez said, “As the Iranian regime continues to push the limit and enrich nuclear material to record levels approaching the 90 percent threshold for a nuclear weapon, the international community must respond.” He also expressed skepticism about IAEA Head Rafael Grossi’s March 4 announcement that Iran will allow for increased monitoring of its nuclear program, warning that the agreement “falls well short of addressing” Iran’s nuclear activities.

Representative Porter Praises House Democrats’ Meetings with Netanyahu. Representative Katie Porter (D-CA), who participated in a February 2023 J Street Congressional delegation to Israel with 14 other Democratic House members, said that the group’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu were a constructive exchange. Representative Porter said that the delegation had an “interactive dialogue,” with Netanyahu, discussing his government’s judicial reform proposal, security threats from Iran and its proxies, and Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Intelligence Committee Holds Annual Worldwide Threats Hearing. On March 8, the Senate Intelligence Committee held its annual hearing on global threats featuring testimony from the heads of the US intelligence agencies. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines provided the opening testimony on behalf of the five Biden administration officials participating in the hearing, which included remarks about Iran’s threat to Israel and its nuclear program. Throughout the hearing, the Biden administration’s intelligence community officials implored senators to support congressional reauthorization of Section 702, the US government’s post-9/11 warrantless surveillance law, which it uses to collect intelligence on foreign threats, including the intelligence used for last year’s drone strike that killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In addition to the surveillance debate, Senator Angus King (I-ME) raised questions about the intelligence community’s preparedness for migration from the Middle East and North Africa in the coming years, and Senator James Lankford (R-OK) raised questions about Iran’s nuclear program and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ targeting of former US officials.

HFAC MENA Subcommittee Hosts Abraham Accords Hearing. On March 10, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia held a hearing titled, “Expanding the Abraham Accords,” featuring testimony from former Obama and Trump administration officials Daniel Shapiro, Robert Greenway, and Joseph Votel. During the hearing, representatives asked the experts about how the Abraham Accords could be used to decrease recent violence in Israel and Palestine. In addition, all three former officials expressed that the Abraham Accords could be leveraged to decrease Chinese influence in the region. Responding to questions about the prospects for the accords’ expansion, the experts told representatives that Saudi Arabia should be a US priority, but that its role as custodian of Islamic holy sites could pose a difficulty.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Speaks with Oman’s Sultan Haitham. On March 7, President Biden spoke with Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said. The leaders discussed “mutual efforts to forge a more prosperous, peaceful, and integrated Middle East region,” and President Biden welcomed Oman’s decision to open its airspace to Israeli aircraft. President Biden also thanked the Omani sultan for his country’s role in freeing American citizens from Iran and its support for the current UN-mediated truce in Yemen.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Hosts Israeli Interagency Delegation at the White House. On March 6, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan hosted Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer, and a senior Israeli interagency delegation for a meeting of the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group. The officials discussed Iran’s nuclear program and Israel’s integration into the Middle East through the Abraham Accords.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Meets with Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs, National Security Advisor. On March 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Minister for Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer and Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi. The officials discussed US-Israel relations, the US commitment to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons, and continued violence in Israel/Palestine. The Israeli officials were reportedly preparing to discuss far-right Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s upcoming visit to Washington, which last week grew increasingly controversial after he stated that the Palestinian village of Huwwara “needs to be wiped out.” Biden administration officials reportedly declined an invitation to the March 12 Israel Bonds conference in Washington due to Smotrich’s attendance. The State Department has since approved a visa for Smotrich, despite his comments.

State Department Sanctions Syrian Military Official Involved in 2013 Tadamon Massacre. On March 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the State Department has sanctioned Amjad Yousef, a Syrian intelligence officer who murdered 41 unarmed civilians in the 2013 Tadamon massacre. In April 2022, the State Department condemned the atrocities after the release of a video showing Yousef shooting blindfolded civilians at point-blank range. The new sanctions designation will prevent Yousef and his immediate family from obtaining visas to enter the United States.

State Department Welcomes UN Agreement on Safer Oil Tanker. On March 9, the State Department welcomed a UN agreement to remove 1.1 million barrels of oil from the badly-maintained Safer oil tanker, which is moored off the coast of Yemen. State Department Spokesperson Ned Price called it “a critical step” in the United Nations’ plan to prevent an environmental catastrophe in the Red Sea. In his statement, Price also called for $34 million in aid to support the operation.

Turkey Summons Ambassador Flake Following General Milley’s Surprise Trip to Syria. On March 6, Turkish authorities summoned US Ambassador Jeff Flake following Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley’s surprise visit to northeastern Syria on March 4. General Milley traveled to an area of Syria that is controlled by the US-supported Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey has repeatedly attacked. Also on March 6, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price denied media reports that General Milley met with SDF head Mazloum Abdi, maintaining the position that he only met with US military personnel.

State Department Awards 2023 International Women of Courage Award to Jordanian Activist, Iranian Women. On March 8, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and First Lady Jill Biden hosted the 2023 International Women of Courage awards at the White House. This year, the State Department awarded Jordanian human rights activist Hadeel Abdel Aziz, who works to defend refugees, migrants, and survivors of sexual and gender-based violence in Jordan. It also awarded the Madeline Albright Honorary Group Award to women and girls who have led Iran’s mass protest movement since the September 16, 2022 death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s so-called morality police.

3) Department of Defense

US Defense Officials Warn Israelis about Increased Settler Violence. On March 9, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. While the meetings focused on the US-Israel defense relationship and the need to counter Iran, US officials also reportedly made warnings to Israeli officials about recent settler violence in the West Bank. Following his meetings, Secretary Austin stated, “We’re especially disturbed by violence by settlers against Palestinians.” His comments follow a recent report that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley reportedly delivered an unprecedented message to Israeli officials during a visit last week, when he allegedly said to an Israeli official, “You have to decide which side you are on. It is not possible that after a conference in Aqaba, to which we send senior generals, you are setting Huwwara on fire.”

Secretary Austin Meets with Jordan’s King Abdullah II. On March 5, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Jordan’s King Abdullah II in Amman, where the two leaders discussed regional issues, the $10.15 billion US-Jordan Memorandum of Understanding, and bilateral military cooperation. Secretary Austin thanked King Abdullah II for hosting last week’s Aqaba meeting, and the king reportedly asked Secretary Austin for US assistance to address drug smuggling by Iran-backed militias on the other side of the Jordan-Syria border. Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, the United States has given Jordan $1 billion to secure its 375-kilometer border with Syria.

Secretary Austin Makes Unannounced Trip to Iraq. On March 7, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III made a surprise visit to Baghdad, where he met with Iraqi Prime Minister Mohammed Shia’ al Sudani and Iraqi Defense Minister Thabet Muhammad Al-Abbasi. Secretary Austin traveled to Erbil as well, where he met with President of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region and Commander in Chief of the Peshmerga Nechirvan Barzani. During his meetings, Secretary Austin reaffirmed the US commitment to defeating the so-called Islamic State, including a commitment to maintaining a US troop presence in Iraq. The surprise visit, which occurred just weeks before the 20-year anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq, comes as Congress considers S. 316, a bill repealing the Authorizations for the Use of Military Force for Iraq.

Secretary Austin Meets with Egyptian President el-Sisi and Defense Minister Zaki. On March 8, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Defense Minister Mohamed Zaki. Secretary Austin praised President Sisi on Egypt’s regional leadership and its role in mediating recent Israeli-Palestinian tensions. The secretary also emphasized the United States’ commitment to fundamental freedoms and human rights.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Targets Five Chinese Companies for Building Iranian Drones. On March 9, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned five Chinese companies and one individual involved in the production of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones. The sanctions targeted the production of Shahed-136 drones, which have been exported to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine.

Treasury Department Sanctions Evaders of Iran Sanctions. On March 9, OFAC sanctioned 39 entities involved in a “shadow banking” network that aids Iranian sanctions evasion. The designated entities are based in East Asia, the UAE, Turkey, and Iran.

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Officials, Companies for Human Rights Abuse. On March 8, for International Women’s Day, OFAC, in coordination with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Australia sanctioned several Iranian officials and three Iranian companies responsible for major human rights abuses against women and girls. The sanctions target two senior prison officials, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) leader who was central to the Iranian government’s blocking of internet access, an army official, Iran’s top censorship official, and three Iranian companies and their heads.

5) US Agency for International Development

Deputy Administrator Coleman Travels to Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. From March 8­–10, US Agency for International Development (USAID) Deputy Administrator Isobel Coleman traveled to Jordan, Israel, and the West Bank. In Jordan, Deputy Administrator Coleman discussed the importance of the Jordanian reform agenda supported under the US-Jordan Memorandum of Understanding and announced a $55 million aid package for food assistance for Syrian refugees in Jordan. In Israel and the West Bank, Coleman met with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss USAID projects to support the Palestinian people.

III. Judicial Branch

Yemeni Activists Sue Secretary Austin, Secretary Blinken, and US Defense Contractors. Seven Yemeni individuals have filed a lawsuit against Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and US defense contractors Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and General Dynamics over their complicity in the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The plaintiffs are victims of two bombings, in 2015 and 2016, and are accusing the US officials and contractors of supplying Saudi Arabia and the UAE with the weapons used in the attacks. The plaintiffs are also suing Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Emirati President Mohammed bin Zayed for their complicity in the alleged crimes.

Family of US Citizen Killed in September Kurdistan Bombing Sues IRGC. On March 6, the family of Omar Mahmoudzadeh sued the IRGC in the US District Court for the District of Columbia. Mahmoudzadeh, a US citizen, was killed in a September 28 Iranian airstrike in Iraq’s Kurdistan region, which came only weeks after the start of the Mahsa Amini protests and targeted Iranian Kurdish opposition groups in Iraqi Kurdistan. The family can sue the IRGC under the terrorism exception of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. The IRGC has been on the State Department’s terrorism blacklist since 1984, and was designated a foreign terrorist organization under the Trump administration in 2019.