Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Recognizing the Commencement of Ramadan. House Democrats introduced H. Res. 940 to recognize the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan. The chamber’s sole Muslim members—Democratic Reps. André Carson (Indiana), Ilhan Omar (Minnesota), and Rashida Tlaib (Michigan)—cosponsored the bill, and upon introduction the resolution had 23 total cosponsors. The resolution states that the “House of Representatives recognizes the Islamic faith as one of the great religions of the world” and commends American Muslims and their counterparts around the world for their faith.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Murphy Criticizes Egypt for Detaining Americans, “Abysmal” Human Rights Record. This week Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) released a statement criticizing the Egyptian government’s detention of at least six US citizens as political prisoners, noting that one prisoner, Mohamed Amashah, is currently on a hunger strike and is at serious risk of contracting the novel coronavirus. For the second time in April, Murphy criticized Cairo for its poor human rights record and expressed shock that Washington has failed to hold Egypt accountable for its detention of Americans. His public statements stand in stark contrast to those of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who, in a phone call with Egypt’s foreign minister, told his counterpart that US citizens should be kept safe as the coronavirus spreads through prisons around the world, including in Egypt, and that they should be provided with access to US consular services. The statement released by the State Department made no mention of Pompeo demanding US citizens be released and returned to the United States, however.

Rep. Malinowski Discusses US Foreign Policy toward Iran during the COVID-19 Pandemic. This week, the National Iranian American Council held an online event with Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) to discuss US foreign policy during the coronavirus pandemic. Malinowski tackled a plethora of topics including US global  leadership and sanctions policy as well as the incongruence between the Trump Administration’s policy goals toward Iran versus how the United States can help the Iranian people manage the COVID-19 outbreak. In particular, he argued that Washington has “both a moral obligation and … a strategic opportunity to ease up on the sanctions that have been imposed” on Iran. In assessing the Trump Administration’s objectives for its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran, Malinowski said that some members of the president’s administration, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are seeking regime change in Tehran, arguing that he did not think it is feasible to “starve an authoritarian regime into collapse.”

Rep. Malinowski spoke about the lack of US leadership in encouraging the international community to sue for peace in places like Yemen and Syria. (Arab Center Washington DC wrote last week about how the United States has joined Russia in undermining efforts to establish a global cease-fire in all active conflicts.) Moving forward, Malinowski said that the United States must focus on improving its own pandemic response and establish its global position as a model for other countries and as a dominant world power.

Members of House Foreign Affairs Middle East Subcommittee Discuss Yemen. Though the House of Representatives has not returned to Washington for normal business, Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, held a closed webcast briefing this week to hear from experts about the situation in Yemen amid continued fighting and the spread of the coronavirus. Deutch tweeted that the United States must remain involved in seeking an end to the humanitarian suffering in Yemen.

Senator Coons Hopes for Caution in Israeli Annexation. Senator Chris Coons (D-Delaware), who is currently operating as a campaign surrogate for the former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, told listeners this week he hopes that some Israeli actors will serve as a brake on rapid annexation of Palestinian land and territory. Coons, who occupies Biden’s old Senate seat, expressed hope that Benny Gantz, the former military official and Benjamin Netanyahu’s unity government partner, would caution the latter against any rushed annexation that could undermine Israeli stability. Such statements, however, contradict the fact that Gantz agreed to an annexation vote by the Knesset in a few months. In addition, according to one report, even if he reversed course and went back to opposing annexation, it is unclear if he could halt the effort.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Trump Has Calls with Qatar’s Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad, UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. Over the last week, President Donald Trump held phone calls with the leaders of two Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. He spoke with the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, to thank him for his country’s role in mediating peace discussions between the United States and actors from Afghanistan and to urge him to continue working on resolving the two-year rift between Qatar and GCC states Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Bahrain. The president also spoke with Emirati Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Zayed to consider the potential next steps for ending the GCC row and for de-escalating conflicts in Libya and Syria.

Although he did not speak directly speak with President Trump, Sultan Haitham bin Tarik Al Said of Oman talked with the president’s top diplomat, Secretary Pompeo. The two discussed Oman’s efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus as well as the need for the two sides to continue working together to “advance prosperity, security, commerce, and stability in the region.” The readout of the meeting did not specify if the topic of resolving the GCC crisis was addressed.

2) Department of Defense

New Pentagon Report Undermines State Department Argument about US Sanctions. The Department of Defense has independently assessed that US sanctions are directly harming Iran’s national efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic, according to a document leaked to the press this week. The Pentagon made clear that US sanctions have “left Iran bereft of financial resources to mount an effective public health response” to the pandemic and “unable to order ventilators from abroad, which are crucial for treatment.” The Department of Defense’s assessment runs counter to statements made by Secretary Pompeo, his special envoy for Iran Brian Hook, and others at the State Department since the coronavirus reached Iran. These officials and others have repeatedly denied the claim that US sanctions are hurting Tehran in the fight against COVID-19, instead blaming regime corruption and incompetence for the deadly toll in Iran. The Pentagon fears that if Iran is left unable to turn the tide of coronavirus exposure then, ultimately, US forces in the Middle East would be in danger.

Trump Taps Loyalist to Serve as Undersecretary of Defense. President Trump has reportedly decided to nominate Anthony Tata, a Trump favorite on Fox News programs, to serve as the undersecretary of defense and oversee the department’s policy planning. Tata is largely considered a Trump loyalist because he defended the president and his policies from his position at Fox News. However, there are questions about his past. Because this post requires Senate confirmation, Tata stands to face a lot of pressure from Senate Democrats if or when he is formally nominated and has a hearing with the Senate Armed Services Committee. If confirmed, Tata will replace John Rood and will directly oversee Simone Ledeen, who will oversee the Pentagon’s Middle East policy planning.

3) Department of State and US Agency for International Development

US Renews, Amends Iraq Sanctions Waivers for Iranian Electricity. The State Department reportedly notified Iraqi officials over the phone this week that Baghdad will again be exempt from sanctions so that it can fulfill its energy needs. The State Department’s decision allows Iraq to continue importing gas and electricity from Iran, despite US sanctions, for an additional 30 days. The previous 30-day exemption was issued in March and expired on April 26. Baghdad is in the process of trying to form a government under Prime Minister-designate Mustafa Kadhimi and US officials likely wanted to avoid cutting off Iraq’s access to crucial energy supplies at this juncture for fear of scuttling support for him.

Secretary Pompeo Seeks to Use JCPOA to Force New Sanctions at UN. The New York Times reported this week that Secretary Pompeo and State Department lawyers will try to convince the UN Security Council that the United States remains a party to the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Despite the Trump Administration’s very public abrogation of the nuclear accord, Pompeo and his team are prepared to invoke a “snapback” of UN sanctions on Iran if the body’s current arms embargo on Iran is not renewed before its expiration in October of this year.

Though the discussion is heating up as the October deadline draws nearer, it has been clear for some time that this move was a possibility. Republicans in Congress have called on the administration multiple times to unilaterally reimpose UN sanctions on Iran (see here and here) since the Trump Administration opted to renege on the JCPOA. The strategy will surely draw the ire of US allies at the UN Security Council, but it is bound to work in imposing sanctions on Tehran. Former President Barack Obama said in 2015 that the effort would work, but few then thought that the United States would force sanctions after it exited the deal. Washington could unilaterally impose sanctions, preventing the Iranians from buying or selling conventional arms, but global sanctions are only effective when UN member states enforce them. This decision runs counter to powerful states like China and Russia, which oppose the move.

USAID Seeks to Block $5 Million in Aid to Gaza over Concerns about Hamas. Just one week after the administration decided it would follow the law and the will of Congress by providing aid to the occupied Palestinian territories, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) is now reportedly fighting to keep that money from going to the besieged Gaza Strip. The reasoning, according to the conservative outlet that reported the decision, is because Hamas, a group that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, oversees the internal affairs of the strip. Unless USAID opts to allow one of the nongovernmental organizations that operates in Gaza to distribute aid to locals—instead of individuals tied to Hamas—then the people of Gaza will have even fewer resources than their counterparts in the West Bank to combat the spread of the coronavirus. This will only further harm the Palestinians living in Gaza.

State Department Says It Is Prepared to Recognize Israel’s Annexation of West Bank Areas. A State Department spokesperson said this week that “As we have made consistently clear, we are prepared to recognize Israeli actions to extend Israeli sovereignty and the application of Israeli law to areas of the West Bank that the vision foresees as being part of the State of Israel.” This comes as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressed confidence that the United States would do just that. However, the State Department official said that the Trump Administration envisions this process as being combined with Israeli efforts to negotiate with the Palestinians, though it is unclear if Netanyahu is committed to that aspect of the plan.