Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Hearings and Briefings

US Sanctions’ Impact on Iran’s COVID-19 Crisis. This week, the organization J Street held a webcast to discuss the impacts that US sanctions have had on Iran’s ability to combat the spread of the coronavirus disease. As part of the discussion, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) outlined his recent efforts to mobilize support among his Senate colleagues for calling on the Trump Administration to institute targeted sanctions relief to allow Tehran to better confront the global pandemic. Murphy opened his remarks by stating that the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign has been an abject failure, detailing a long list of examples that he says illustrate how sanctions have actually made Iran more confrontational in its actions.

Murphy told viewers that the current environment serves as an opportunity for the United States to step up and facilitate aid for Iran to combat COVID-19. Doing so would be beneficial in three ways, Murphy said. First, it would help undermine some of the propaganda the regime uses with its population about what it sees as the nefariousness of the United States. Second, it could serve as an expression of goodwill between the two sides, potentially thawing US-Iranian relations. Finally, it is simply in the best interest of the United States to help Iran—a major COVID-19 hotspot—combat the spread of the disease. Failure to do so means that Americans would remain at risk because, as this pandemic has shown, such viruses know no borders.

In closing, Murphy outlined specific actions the Trump Administration should take toward Iran and, briefly, toward the occupied Palestinian territories. For Tehran, he called on the administration to implement a clear, general license that would allow relief organizations in Iran to procure the desperately needed medical equipment necessary for treating COVID-19. Further, he said the United States needs to facilitate a financing mechanism to help this procurement process since years of US sanctions have dissuaded banks from working with Iranian entities for any reason, even in regard to the flow of humanitarian goods. On the Palestinians, Murphy said that US aid has moral, humanitarian, and security importance and called on the administration to deliver appropriated funds to the Palestinian territories. He also criticized the administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan and its deliberate deviation from the two-state solution, a longstanding US policy objective in the region.

II. Executive Branch

1)  White House

Trump Speaks with Saudi Crown Prince about Oil Output. This week, President Donald Trump tweeted that he had spoken with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) and the latter had assured him that Riyadh and Moscow had come to an agreement to cut oil output and stabilize global energy markets. It is not clear what specifics Trump and MbS discussed but the president was immediately undermined when Russia said President Vladimir Putin had not even spoken to leaders in Saudi Arabia. At a time when the global economy is being pummeled by the spread of COVID-19, many American officials have eyed Saudi Arabia’s decision to flood the market with oil as a war on American energy producers and as a step that needlessly undercuts the already vulnerable global economy. As such, the Trump Administration has made it a point to persuade Riyadh and Moscow, the leading exporters of oil, to scale back their production to stabilize prices. Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette has been working on this task, speaking with his Saudi counterpart on stabilizing oil output and organizing a virtual meeting of G20 nations’ energy ministers.

Trump Administration Vetoes Approval of IMF Loan to Iran. While Iran struggles to manage the outbreak of COVID-19 in addition to a flailing economy, leaders in Tehran took the remarkable step to request on March 12 a $5 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The move is noteworthy because Iran had not requested aid from the IMF since a decade before the Islamic Republic was established. Countries around the world have avoided the body because many eye it suspiciously as a tool of western imperialism; they point to the IMF’s questionable efficacy when dealing with states that are not considered part of the West and to the fact that the United States is “the largest shareholder” and has “veto power over major policy decisions.” Washington used that very veto power to prevent the IMF from granting the loan Tehran requested. By US law, the United States must legally vote against IMF support to any country on the US state sponsors of terrorism list (which Iran is), but this veto comes at a time when Washington has resisted calls to relax unilateral sanctions to help Tehran manage the Islamic Republic’s coronavirus response—thus it appears as another spiteful move by the Trump Administration.

As the administration was preparing to veto the request, the State Department issued a press statement to support what Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others in the administration consider the “scam” that is Tehran’s request for sanctions relief. Basically, hardliners in Washington have made a case that Iran already has the resources it needs to fight the spread of COVID-19—even though nongovernmental organizations have said that sanctions have a demonstrable effect on Iranians’ ability to secure the medical equipment necessary for fighting the pandemic.

2) Department of Defense

US Downgrades Naval Presence in Middle East. The Pentagon has found itself having to shift around its naval aircraft carriers after the USS Theodore Roosevelt experienced an acute outbreak of the coronavirus that has grounded the ship. The Roosevelt was part of the Pentagon’s military presence in the Pacific and Defense Department officials are ending its two-carrier presence in the Middle East to free up resources. The USS Harry Truman, which was deployed to the Arabian Gulf in January of this year to aid in providing deterrence against potential Iranian attacks, is to be deployed out of the region, leaving just the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower to patrol the region’s waters.

Department of Defense Continues to Harm Civilians in Somalia. This week, the human rights organization Amnesty International published a report detailing how the US Defense Department continues killing and injuring civilians during its military operations in Somalia, a member state of the Arab League. During the first three months of 2020, the US military carried out 32 air strikes in Somalia; this was nearly half the number of air strikes the Pentagon undertook in the entirety of 2019. Ostensibly, US forces and US partners in the Somali government have conducted these air raids against the militant al-Shabab group, but Amnesty International has confronted both the US and Somali governments with evidence that not all who are deemed terrorists by Washington actually fit the definition. Amnesty is calling on the Pentagon to acknowledge its record of killing and injuring civilians, end the practice, and deliver justice to the families affected by its bombing campaign.

US Soldier Killed in IS Ambush in Syria. This week, one American and two soldiers of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were allegedly killed in an Islamic State (IS) ambush in northeastern Syria. The report, which originated in Syrian state television, claims that the American military officer and the two SDF soldiers were killed in Deir Ezzor, an oil-producing part of the country that President Trump says US troops are to protect.

3) Department of State and USAID

Secretary Pompeo Speaks with Sudanese Prime Minister, Saudi and Egyptian Foreign Ministers. Secretary of State Pompeo spoke with Sudanese Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok this week about the coronavirus pandemic and the joint US-Sudanese cooperation in addressing the crisis. The secretary also spoke with Hamdok about Sudan’s political transition and what Khartoum can do so that Washington could remove Sudan from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Many have long believed that Sudan would not be removed from that list until it compensated Americans who had filed suit against Sudan for its role in supporting the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. As such, Khartoum agreed this week to pay millions of dollars in redress in order to drop the suit against the country.

Secretary Pompeo also fielded a phone call from Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. The two spoke about the need to confront the current pandemic through cooperation, but Pompeo also raised concerns about the situation in Yemen. He reiterated to the foreign minister that Washington stands with Riyadh against the Houthi rebels and Iran and urged bin Farhan to continue working through the UN framework to realize peace in Yemen. Lastly, Pompeo spoke with Sameh Shoukry, Egypt’s foreign minister, about the international response to COVID-19.

USAID Second-in-Command Discusses Aid to Palestine. In a wide-ranging interview, Bonnie Glick, the deputy administrator of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and next in line to run the agency after the current administrator leaves on April 10, defended the Trump Administration’s decision to cut USAID programs to the Palestinians. Glick told Jewish Insider that the decision to strip Palestinians under Israeli occupation of tens of millions of dollars of development and social welfare aid was not controversial; her reasoning suggests that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas declined US aid instead of complying with a US mandate to end support for terrorism.

US Seeks Strategic Dialogue with Iraq. Secretary Pompeo told reporters on April 7 that the United States and Iraq will meet for a “strategic dialogue” about how best the countries could work together to ensure the enduring defeat of IS, define the terms of the US military presence in Iraq moving forward, and support a stable and united Iraq. According to Pompeo, Under Secretary for Political Affairs David Hale will be responsible for carrying out the dialogue with Baghdad.

4) Department of Justice

US Accuses Qatar of Bribery in Federal Indictment. The United States has spent years investigating corruption and allegations of bribery among officials of the International Federation of Association Football, or FIFA. This week the US Department of Justice unsealed a federal indictment saying that “representatives working for Russia and Qatar had bribed FIFA officials to secure hosting rights for the World Cup in men’s soccer.” Though no Qatari individual was indicted, the Justice Department alleges that one or more of the individuals who were indicted took money from someone working on behalf of Doha, in exchange for a vote for Qatar’s bid to host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar, for its part, denied any impropriety in the matter.