Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

No Sanctions Relief Unless Americans Freed from Iranian Detention. A group of House Republicans introduced yet another bill that attempts to limit the kind of sanctions relief Iran can receive as it continues to negotiate a possible return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the United States. This bill, H.R. 2938, would prohibit the lifting of sanctions until all US citizens imprisoned in Iran are released to the United States.

Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act. Senator Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts) and two of his Democratic colleagues announced that they were reintroducing a bill known as the Turkey Human Rights Promotion Act. The bill, which Markey introduced last Congress, seeks to promote human rights by directing the State Department to more actively support civil society actors in Turkey and, among other things, make it US policy to oppose Ankara’s continued crackdown on rights and freedoms under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

2) Hearings and Briefings

Impact of the Abraham Accords. On April 30, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) gave a brief assessment of the normalization agreements between Israel and some Arab states, known as the “Abraham Accords.” In short, Graham argued that these agreements came to fruition due to the countries’ shared fear of Iran and a desire to move forward despite Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory. Graham hopes the sides will continue to work to reach a level of economic and cultural exchange that has been notably absent, as he says, from the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement.

Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction. On May 4, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Intelligence and Special Operations held a hearing to examine steps being taken by the Department of Defense to counter the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). The witnesses, all of whom serve at the Department of Defense, outlined the technical details of the United States’ counter-WMD policies. They said that the United States considers Syria a threat in this realm because of Bashar al-Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons. Interestingly, according to the witnesses Iran is not actually the greatest threat the US faces in terms of nuclear proliferation—because, as one official noted, “Iran does not have a nuclear weapons program.” Instead, the Department of Defense officials said that China is the biggest threat to nuclear nonproliferation efforts. Syria’s continued use of chemical weapons and pursuit of other WMDs were cited by President Biden when he published a general notice and wrote to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) about his decision to extend a national emergency declaration against Syria, one that allows for continued sanctions of the government in Damascus.

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Republicans Push Biden on Iran. House Republicans are again trying to influence President Biden’s Iran policy as the Biden team kicks off another round of indirect talks on the nuclear deal in Vienna. Reps. Michael McCaul (Texas), Joe Wilson (South Carolina), and Steve Chabot (Ohio) wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisting that the International Atomic Energy Agency—which was responsible for monitoring and inspecting Iran’s declared nuclear sites under the JCPOA—have more access to information regarding Iran’s nuclear facilities. Rep. Greg Steube (R-Florida) weighed in as well, penning an op-ed blasting the Biden Administration’s policies toward Iran thus far and calling for Congress to adopt his Maximum Pressure Act to mount more pressure on the government in Tehran.

It is not just Republicans who are trying to dictate the outcome of renewed US-Iran engagement, however. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) told viewers of a recent virtual event that President Biden needs to use continued negotiations to address a range of Iranian activities that are separate from the nuclear question.

Senator Duckworth Urges Biden to Lean on Turkey over Syrian Kurds. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) sent a letter to President Biden, pressuring him to fight harder to support US-supported Kurdish forces in Syria against the threats posed by Turkey. Namely, Duckworth wants Washington to funnel more resources into the Kurdish-controlled areas of Syria to help address the humanitarian struggles of people in that region. She also urged the president to demand that Ankara end its “malign activities” against the Kurds, whom the government of Turkey view as a serious threat.

Progressives Grow More Vocal in Criticism of Israel and US Support for Its Policies. As the situation in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood grows more heated, some notable progressive lawmakers have spoken out in no uncertain terms against both Israeli and US policy toward Palestinians. Rep. Marie Newman (D-Illinois) called on the State Department to unequivocally condemn Israel’s forced eviction of the Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah as a violation of international law. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) spoke out against Israeli policy that she described as “state-sponsored persecution” and demanded that none of the $3.8 billion in assistance that Israel receives from the United States annually should be used to facilitate this persecution. McCollum’s fellow Minnesota Democrat, Ilhan Omar, echoed her statement and panned the fact that there is little accountability for how Israel uses US taxpayer money. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) centered the pain that Palestinians suffer under occupation when he appeared before a virtual gathering of the Jewish Community Relations Council and defended his support for McCollum’s efforts to limit how US aid is used to entrench Israel’s military occupation.

Lawmakers Try to Influence Biden on Israel Appointment, Yemen Aid. Away from the Iran file, members of Congress are seeking to influence Biden Administration policy on other issues as well. Two Florida Democrats, Reps. Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman-Shultz, joined Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-New York) in urging President Biden to reconsider his short list of potential US ambassadors to Israel and instead to choose former Congressman Robert Wexler. It has been widely reported recently that Biden prefers former Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides for that role, but Wexler’s backers view him as a better fit thanks to his deep ties to the Jewish communities in both the United States and Israel, as well as his experience in analyzing and working on issues relevant to US-Israel relations.

On Yemen, a bipartisan group of senators wrote to the State Department urging it to help mobilize the international community to secure $2.5 billion to ease the humanitarian suffering in the war-torn country. After this year’s previous donor conference failed in amassing the necessary funding, this group of senators wants to renew the effort to ensure that international aid groups can contribute effectively and alleviate the challenges facing millions of Yemenis.

Senators Murphy, Coons Travel to Middle East. Democratic Senators Chris Murphy (Connecticut) and Chris Coons (Delaware) took an opportunity during Congress’s recess to travel to the Middle East. Murphy, for his part, visited Oman, Qatar, and Jordan with senior Biden officials to explore issues related to Yemen, Syria, and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Coons visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in part, it appears, to alleviate concerns about the ongoing negotiations between Washington and Tehran. It is telling that neither traveled to Saudi Arabia despite visiting other Gulf capitals, indicating that Riyadh is still eyed warily by the Democrats who currently control Washington.

 II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSA Sullivan Throws Cold Water on Quick Return to JCPOA. During an event with the Aspen Institute this week, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told listeners that the talks in Vienna over the previous week were in an “uncertain” state and, although he was heartened by the willingness of all sides to seriously engage on the issues at hand, he was unsure whether they would culminate in a new agreement in “the coming weeks.”

President Biden Meets with Mossad’s Cohen, Speaks to UAE’s MbZ. President Biden engaged with some key Middle East officials this week when he met with the head of Israel’s Mossad, Yossi Cohen, and spoke with the UAE’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ). Biden and Cohen were said to have met for an hour and talked about Iran in depth, despite earlier reports that the president simply “dropped by” a meeting between Cohen and NSA Sullivan. If Biden and Cohen did discuss Iran, the latter left disappointed and now Israeli officials are “less than happy” with Biden’s approach to the Islamic Republic. The Biden-Cohen meeting was just one of several meetings Israeli officials held with top officials including Secretary Blinken, Central Intelligence Agency Director Bill Burns, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, and others. UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield also held a meeting with Gilad Erdan, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations.

As for President Biden’s call with MbZ, the two were said to have spoken about US-Emirati relations, Emirati-Israeli relations, and the need to de-escalate tensions in the region.

After Pushback, Biden Announces Lift of Refugee Cap. Immigration proves to be a challenging subject for the Biden Administration and, because of the potentially perilous optics of increasing immigration, the president and his team were skeptical of raising the cap on the number of refugees the United States will admit this fiscal year. After some fierce pushback, however, the administration announced that it will lift that cap from the historical low of 15,000, set by former President Donald Trump, to 62,500. However, the administration is discouraging any hopes of actually admitting the 62,500 allowed under that cap and expressed even more uncertainty about future goals of admitting 125,000 refugees next fiscal year. Demonstrating the fraught political nature of immigration policy, Biden received criticism not only from one notable House Republican, Michael McCaul, for raising the cap, but also from Senator Ed Markey, who criticized the president for not immediately lifting the cap above the 62,500 level.

Biden Continues National Emergency Regarding Iraq. In a brief statement, the president announced a continuation of a national emergency with respect to stability in Iraq. Under US law, such a national emergency pronouncement unlocks powers the president can use to sanction individuals who jeopardize the stability of the country.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Talks with Moroccan, Israeli Counterparts. On April 30, Secretary Blinken held phone calls with the foreign ministers of Morocco and Israel. During their call, Blinken and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita discussed a number of reforms undertaken by Morocco, including normalizing relations with Israel. The secretary of state also reportedly told Bourita that President Biden will not reverse President Trump’s recognition of Rabat’s sovereignty over the disputed Western Sahara. Blinken also noted that Rabat has a crucial role in helping stabilize the situation in Libya. In his call with Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Blinken expressed condolences for the dozens of Israelis killed on April 30 at a religious festival and offered US assistance if Israel needed it.

New Special Envoy Travels to Egypt for GERD Talks. The Biden Administration recently tapped Jeffrey Feltman to serve as Special Envoy for the Horn of Africa, and part of his job is to attempt to mediate a dispute between Egypt, Sudan, and Ethiopia over the latter’s planned Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). Feltman traveled to Cairo this week where he met with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and then he was slated to visit Sudan as well as some other East African states.

No Durban Conference Recognition and No Prisoner Swap, Says State. The State Department announced this week that no US officials will participate in the United Nations’ commemoration of the 2001 Durban Conference, which the United States maintains unfairly singled Israel out as a racist state. The State Department said the conference is symbolic of the United Nations’ anti-Israel sentiment and it will not celebrate the 20th anniversary this September. On another matter of US nonparticipation, reports also surfaced this week that Iran and the United States were moving toward securing an agreement to swap citizens currently in detention in each country. However, officials in both Tehran and Washington denied the reports—despite the fact that the claim first arose from Iranian state-sponsored media—and the White House stated that there was no agreement that would have reportedly secured the release of four Americans.

3) Department of Justice

Domestic Extremists Plead Guilty to Cooperating with FTO Hamas. In a curious turn of events, members of a domestic US anti-government extremist group pleaded guilty this week to providing material support for Hamas, a US-sanctioned foreign terrorist organization (FTO). Members of the so-called “Boogaloo Bois” reportedly sought to provide Hamas with weapons which, they claimed, Hamas would then use to target US military personnel stationed abroad. The Boogaloo Bois are generally considered to be a coalition of far-right extremists and many of its adherents are Neo-Nazis or white supremacists bent on the overthrow of the US government. While Hamas disavowed the US operation against the Boogaloos Bois and the group itself, the whole episode raises questions about whether homegrown extremists might look to align themselves with groups like Hamas that share an antipathy to the US government.

Marcus Montgomery is a Congressional Resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Marcus and read his previous publications click here