Washington Policy Weekly

 I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Cruz and Others Want to Drop Nuclear Negotiations. On March 9, and using the Russian war on Ukraine as an excuse, Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and James Risch (R-Idaho) asked the Biden Administration to abandon negotiations for a nuclear deal with Iran because Russia will be the beneficiary. A day before, during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland testified, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), SFRC Chair, also wondered whether Russia would benefit financially from a deal with Iran.

Reps. Urge Humanitarian Action on al-Rukban Camp. Four Representatives—Marie Newman (D-Illinois), Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinoi), Jamie Raskin (D-Maryland), and Andre Carson (D-Indiana)—wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking that the United States offer humanitarian assistance to internally displaced Syrians in al-Rukban refugee camp. Al-Rukban is only about 10 miles from al-Tanf US military garrison on the Syrian-Iraqi border and is running out of “food, clean water, and medicine.”

Sens. Murphy/Warren Want Yemen Investigations. Senators Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East, South Asia, Central Asia, and Counterterrorism, and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter to the Defense Department urging investigations into civilian deaths in Yemen caused by US military operations there. They cited reports from two organizations, one Yemeni and another American, about such deaths in between 2017 and 2019.

2) Legislation

Rep. Banks Proposes Barring Iranian Oil. On March 8, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Indiana) introduced H.R.6969, “No Oil From Terrorists Act,” to prohibit the United States government from important any oil products from Iran. The bill has 14 cosponsors and is awaiting action by the House’s Ways and Means Committee.

Senator Rubio Proposes Prohibiting Importation of Iranian Oil. On March 10, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced similar legislation in the Senate. S.3798 prohibits the importation of oil products and liquefied natural gas from Iran as well as Venezuela. The legislation was proposed to the Senate’s Finance Committee.

Congress Passes Spending Bill, Sending $1 billion to Israel’s Iron Dome. The House on March 10 passed a spending bill to fund the US government. The budget resolution contains $3.3 billion aid for Israel pursuant to the 2016 Memorandum of Understanding, $1 billion in supplemental support for Israel’s Iron Dome missile system, and $250 million in security grants. The package contains also $219 million for the Palestinians and $1.3 billion for Egypt. The spending bill will now go to the White House for President Joe Biden’s signature.

On the other hand, a bipartisan group of senators praised the inclusion of the Israel Relations Normalization Act in the budget resolution which encourages more normalization between Arab countries and Israel.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Formally Designates Qatar a Major Non-NATO Ally. On March 10, President Biden formally notified the Secretary of State of his decision to designate the State of Qatar a Major Non-NATO ally of the United States.

Syrian Exemptions from the Caesar Act. On March 7, Al-Monitor reported that the United States government will exempt areas in northwest and northeast Syria from sanctions imposed on the country through the Caesar Act. The exempted areas are controlled by Syrian opposition groups and the Kurdish-controlled Syrian Democratic Forces.

Former VP Pence Visits Israeli Far Right Figures. On March 9, former Vice President Mike Pence visited two leaders of Israel’s far right parties in al-Khalil (Hebron) in the occupied West Bank. The visit was part of a wider political tour to Israel as Pence probably plans to run for president in 2024. While there, he met with Miriam Adelson, one of the most conservative Republican donors to Israeli settlements, as well Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

2) State Department

USAID Begins Its MEPPA Funding. On March 9, the United States Agency for International Development announced that it is beginning to fund “Israeli-Palestinian business ventures and people-to-people projects.” The funding is in accordance with the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act that was passed by Congress last year.

Blinken Thanks Lapid for Israel’s Mediation in Ukraine. Secretary Blinken thanked Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid for his country’s efforts to help end Russia’s war on Ukraine. Blinken is reported to have insisted that any mediation must adhere to the US, NATO, and European demand that “Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity are respected.”

Blinken Calls UAE Foreign Minister. Secretary Blinken spoke with the UAE Minister of Foreign Affairs Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss cooperating at the United Nations Security Council, where the UAE is a non-permanent member and abstained recently during a vote on Russia’s war on Ukraine. Blinken emphasized the US commitment to UAE security from “threats from Yemen.”

Sherman Meets with Moroccan Foreign Minister. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met on March 8 with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita to discuss enhancing bilateral relations between Morocco and the United States. The two discussed a peaceful resolution to the Western Sahara issue and Sherman expressed her approval of Morocco’s proposed autonomy plan for the region, thinking it is “serious, credible, and realistic.” They further talked about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The two co-chaired the Morocco-US Strategic Dialogue that reiterated the importance of bilateral relations and cooperation on regional issues.

Sherman Meets with Algerian Foreign Minister. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman met on March 10 with Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra to discuss holding the fifth US-Algeria Strategic Dialogue. They also discussed regional stability and diplomatic efforts regarding the Western Sahara as well as the Russian war on Ukraine. Sherman also met with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune during her visit to Algiers.

The US Welcomes the Launch of UN Consultations on Yemen. Secretary Blinken issued a supporting statement on the launch of the inclusive consultations being held by UN Special Envoy for Yemen Hans Grundberg. Blinken urged all Yemeni parties to participate in the discussions in the hope that they produce a peaceful resolution of the conflict, reminding all of the destruction brought about by the war.

State Department Designated Katibat al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad Global Terrorist. The State department designated al-Qaeda affiliate Katibat al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad a Specially Designated Global Terrorist organization. The designation was adopted by the Un Security Council which means that all UN member states have an obligation to freeze the organization’s and its personnel’s assets.

US Calls for Calm in Libya. On March 10, US ambassador to Libya, Richard Norland, warned Libyan rivals Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah and Fathi Bashagha against spiraling tensions following their dispute as to who is legally allowed to be prime minister in Tripoli. Dbeibah refuses to vacate the premiership to Bashagha who was chosen by the House of Representative as new interim prime minister.

US Officials Condemn Iranian Attack on Erbil. On March 13, Iranian ballistic missiles struck targets in Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq. US officials acknowledged that the US consulate in the city was targeted but there was no damage or American casualties. Both the State Department and the US ambassador to Iraq, Richard Tueller, condemned the attack, with the latter pointing to direct Iranian responsibility. From his side, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the United States will be trying to boost Iraq’s air defense capabilities.

3) Defense Department

US-GCC Integrated Defense. The United States and members of the Gulf Cooperation Council convened on March 9 joint working groups on integrated defense issues. The delegations emphasized the long-term defense partnership and discussed regional threats, expressing their disapproval of Iranian activities in the region.

The US-Bahrain Military Consultative Committee Meeting in Manama. Coinciding with the US-Bahrain Strategic Dialogue, the two countries held a Military Consultative Committee meeting in Manama to advance the US-Bahraini defense relationship. Topics included the Iranian missile threat, drones, and integrated defense systems.

Syrian Fighters for Ukraine War. American officials confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that Russia is recruiting Syrian fighters for the war in Ukraine. While unclear how many have been recruited or have already joined the fight, this represents a serious commitment by the Syrian regime to Russia which intervened in the Syrian war to prevent the collapse of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Fifth Fleet Chief Hosts Israeli Commanders in Bahrain. On March 10, US Fifth Fleet Commander, Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, hosted Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kohavi and a group of other officers in Bahrain. The meeting—which no Bahraini officers appear to have joined—was for the purpose of discussing “future opportunities” of US-Israeli cooperation on maritime security.