Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senate Advances Repeals of Iraq AUMFs in Cloture Vote. On March 16, the Senate voted 68 to 27, with 5 senators not voting, to close debate on S.316, Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young’s (R-IN) bill to repeal the 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) for Iraq. This procedural vote paves the way for the Senate’s consideration of the bill next week, and of an amendment to repeal the 2001 AUMF as well. Although 19 Republicans joined Democrats in the cloture vote, it remains unclear whether the Republican-controlled House will take up the legislation. Also on March 16, the White House released a statement in support of the bill, reaffirming that, “The United States conducts no ongoing military activities that rely primarily” on either the 2002 or the 1991 AUMF.

Senators Murphy and Lee Introduce Resolution Forcing Report on Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Abuses, Role in Yemen. On March 15, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced S.Res.109, a resolution requesting information on Saudi Arabia. The resolution, if adopted, would require the secretary of state to submit information to Congress on Saudi Arabia’s human rights practices and its role in the war in Yemen. The resolution is submitted pursuant to Section 502(B) of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961, which allows Congress to review US security assistance to countries over their human rights practices. Significantly, the report from the administration would also require the US government to review US security assistance to Saudi Arabia based on its human rights report, pursuant to Section 502(B). The resolution has been referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, which must vote on it within 10 days, or it will automatically go to a Senate floor vote. If the resolution is adopted, the State Department must submit its report within 30 days, or security assistance to the kingdom would automatically be suspended. On March 14, Senator Murphy said that the resolution is part of his broader effort to review the US-Saudi relationship following the Saudi-led OPEC+ production cut in October 2022, and argued that in doing so the kingdom “sided with Russia over the United States” in its war in Ukraine.

Senators Introduce Bill Targeting Transnational Repression. On March 16, Senators Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) introduced S.831, the Transnational Repression Policy Act. The bill would introduce a transnational repression section to the State Department’s annual Human Rights Report, heighten the US diplomatic and intelligence response to transnational repression, and require the president to submit to Congress a list of sanctioned individuals who have engaged in it. In their introductory statements, the senators cited Iranian transnational repression as a target of the bill.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Lawmakers Offer Mixed Responses to China-Brokered Saudi-Iran Deal. Last week, lawmakers from both parties responded to the Chinese-brokered reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was announced on March 10. On March 14, Senator Chris Coons (D-DE) said that he was “very concerned” about China’s engagement in the Gulf, arguing that a renewed Saudi-Iran relationship could affect US efforts at Saudi-Israeli normalization. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) echoed this concern, and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Michael McCaul (R-TX) said that China’s international acts are a threat to US national security. Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) offered a different view, stating that arguments about Chinese engagement being necessarily bad for the United States are “a bit simplistic.”

Senator Risch Meets with IAEA Director General. On March 15, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) met with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi to discuss global energy and nuclear security issues. Senator Risch pressed the IAEA to hold Iran accountable for its recent uranium enrichment level of 84 percent in spite of a safeguard agreement with the IAEA. Senator Risch and Director General Grossi also discussed the importance of reaching an IAEA agreement between Russia and Ukraine following Russia’s recent takeover of the Zaporizhzhya Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine.

Representative Tlaib Comments on Poll About Democratic Sympathy for Palestinians. On March 16, Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) commented on new Gallup polling demonstrating that Democratic support for Palestinians has increased from 38 percent to 49 percent, with more Democrats now supporting the Palestinians than the Israelis. Representative Tlaib stated, “At a time when so many Democrats rallied against fascism at home, many of these same people are wondering why we send billions of dollars every year to a far-right government that leading human rights organizations say is maintaining an apartheid system.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Armed Services Committee Holds Hearing on CENTCOM and AFRICOM Postures. On March 16, the Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing on US Central Command’s (CENTCOM) and US Africa Command’s (AFRICOM) force posture in the Middle East and Africa. CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla repeatedly warned senators about the threat Iran poses via its nuclear program, its proxies in the Middle East, and its growing military ties with Russia. Kurilla warned the committee’s ranking member, Roger Wicker (R-MS), that, “Iran’s malign behavior has increased in the last two years.” Senators from both parties pressed General Kurilla on Saudi-Iran reconciliation and Chinese influence in the region, on which he commented, “An agreement is not implementation.” Notably, General Kurilla told Senator Angus King (I-ME) that he agrees with Jordanian King Abdullah II’s warning that violence and tensions between Israelis and Palestinians is worse than it has been in decades, saying that, “The tinder and the kindling are there.”

4) Nominations

Senate Confirms Michael Ratney as New US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. On March 14, the Senate voted to confirm Michael Ratney as the next US ambassador to Saudi Arabia. Ratney is a career member of the senior foreign service and has previously served as the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Levant and Israel-Palestinian Affairs and as US Special Envoy for Syria. In September 2022, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) announced a hold on Ratney’s nomination after Saudi Arabia aided one of its nationals, Abdulrahman Noorah, in fleeing the United States after murdering an American teenager who was one of Wyden’s constituents. On March 8, Senator Wyden lifted the hold after the State Department committed to revoking the visas of the Saudi officials who helped Noorah flee the country and evade US prosecution.

SFRC Considers Nominations of US Ambassadors to the UAE and Kuwait. On March 15, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) considered the nominations of Karen Sasahara to become the next US ambassador to Kuwait and Martina Anna Tkadlec Strong to become the next US ambassador to the UAE. During the hearing, Sasahara discussed the threat Iran poses to the Middle East, and argued that if confirmed she would center human rights in Kuwait in her agenda, including the rights of Kuwaiti women, the country’s stateless Bidoon population, and its expatriate population. Strong, meanwhile, discussed Chinese influence in the Gulf and said that she would “be clear with UAE leaders” regarding US concerns about Chinese influence to “underscore that China represents our most consequential geopolitical challenge.” Strong vowed to work closely with the Biden administration and Congress to counter China’s efforts in the UAE and the Gulf. During the hearing, the chair of the SFRC’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia, longtime critic of the United States’ Gulf partners Chris Murphy (D-CT), questioned the US-UAE relationship, citing the UAE’s sanctions evasion and its continued exports to Russia, including of drones, throughout the latter’s war in Ukraine.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Speaks with Netanyahu About Judicial Overhaul in Israel. On March 19, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pushed for compromise in the Netanyahu government’s attempts to overhaul the Israeli judicial system. PM Netanyahu responded with an amended judicial overhaul bill, but Israeli Opposition Leader Yair Lapid rejected the amendments, arguing that they contain no substantive changes. President Biden’s phone call follows congressional pressure from Democrats last week to stop Israeli judicial reforms using “all diplomatic tools available.”

Biden Administration Responds to China-Brokered Saudi-Iran Deal. On March 13, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan commented on the March 10 announcement that China has brokered a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between the two states, calling the deal “a positive,” and stating that the United States had been in close coordination with Saudi Arabia as it engaged in the talks. The same day, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price echoed Sullivan’s comments, stating that “anything that would serve to de-escalate tensions and prevent conflict is in our interest,” and reaffirming that the Biden administration had been in contact with Saudi officials about the agreement. On March 14, the White House released a statement welcoming Saudi Arabia’s recently announced $37 billion purchase of 121 Boeing aircraft, calling it “another milestone in eight decades of cooperation between Saudi Arabia and American industry,” one that demonstrates the continuation of the US-Saudi relationship regardless of the Chinese-brokered deal.

White House Welcomes Israeli President’s Judicial Reform Compromise Plan. On March 16, the White House announced its support for Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s compromise plan to address the Netanyahu government’s controversial judicial reform proposal, which has led to mass protests in Israel. The statement expressed that the administration supports President Herzog’s “continued efforts to seek a solution consistent with…democratic principles.” However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government quickly rejected the compromise proposal.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Meets with Chief Advisor to Turkish President. On March 14, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Spokesperson and Chief Advisor to the President of Turkey Ibrahim Kalin to discuss regional and global security concerns. Sullivan expressed the administration’s condolences for the tragic losses caused by the February 6 earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, and reiterated the United States’ commitment to supporting recovery efforts. The two officials also discussed the need for a renewal of the Black Sea Grain Initiative in light of Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, as well as mutual support of defense cooperation and ongoing peace talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Sullivan also notably underscored the United States’ support for Sweden and Finland’s immediate entry into NATO. Later that week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that Turkey would endorse Finland’s entry into NATO, but not Sweden’s.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Denies Claims that US and Iran Are Approaching Prisoner Exchange Deal. On March 13, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan refuted claims by the Iranian government that the United States and Iran were nearing a deal to exchange prisoners. Sullivan told reporters that there is “no deal” between the White House and Iran, despite US efforts to release three American prisoners detained in Iran. His remarks follow Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s recent comment to Iran’s state media that, “if everything goes well on the American side, then I think we will see the exchange of prisoners soon.”

2) Department of State

State Department Releases Joint Communique After Meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh. On March 19, US officials joined officials from Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt for a follow up on the February 26 Aqaba meeting to address rising violence in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Following the meeting, the State Department released a joint communique with nine points on which all the parties agreed, including an Israeli commitment to halt settlement construction for four months and to stop outpost legalization for stop months, as well as a joint commitment to the status quo of the Holy Sites in Jerusalem, particularly during Ramadan, Easter, and Passover. The parties agreed to convene again in Sharm el-Sheikh in April. The White House welcomed the meeting and the resulting communique.

State Department’s New Budget Cuts Economic Aid to Tunisia. On March 9, the Biden administration released its budget for Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24). The FY24 State Department budget reportedly seeks less funding for Tunisia, with overall bilateral aid falling from $106 million to $68.3 million, and economic support decreasing from $45 million to $14.5 million. A State Department official reportedly attributed the cut to concern over Tunisia’s weakening democratic institutions. The budget also slightly reduces security aid to the country, from $61 million to $53.8 million.

Special Envoy for Yemen Travels to Saudi Arabia and Oman. On March 14, Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Saudi Arabia and Oman as part of ongoing US efforts to build on the current UN-mediated truce in Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking’s visit follows President Biden’s March 7 phone call with Omani Sultan Haitham bin Tariq Al Said, wherein the two leaders discussed the truce. The trip also follows the recent Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran reconciliation deal, which has since resulted in an Iranian commitment to end weapons shipments to the Houthis in Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking also met with both UN and international partners to encourage the continued provision of both humanitarian aid for the crisis in Yemen and support for the UN-led operation to remove oil from the decaying Safer oil tanker, which is moored off the coast of Yemen.

State Department Marks 12-Year Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising. On March 16, the State Department joined the governments of France, the UK, and Germany in recognizing the 12-year anniversary of the Syrian uprising. In a joint statement, the governments called for an UN-facilitated, Syrian-led political process in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and reaffirmed the need to hold the Assad regime and all other perpetrators of atrocities accountable. The parties also reaffirmed that earthquake-related humanitarian aid will not benefit the regime.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Reports Rocket Attacks Targeting Coalition Forces in Syria. On March 13, US Central Command (CENTCOM) reported two rocket attacks that targeted Coalition forces at Mission Support Site Green Village in northeast Syria. CENTCOM stated that no US or Coalition troops were killed or injured, nor was there any damage to Coalition infrastructure or equipment as a result of the incident. US forces are continuing to investigate who is responsible for the attacks.