Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Bipartisan House Lawmakers Introduce Bill to Expand the Abraham Accords. On June 1, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) led a group of bipartisan House Foreign Affairs Committee lawmakers in introducing H.R. 3792, the US-Israel Partnership and Abraham Accords Enhancement Act of 2023. The bill aims to encourage the expansion of the Abraham Accords, partially through the reauthorization of existing programs between the United States and Israel such as the current US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, defense appropriations funding, and the deepening of existing economic and people-to-people ties. The bill would also require the secretary of state to report to congress within 180 days of its enactment detailing bilateral and multilateral cooperation between Israel and MENA countries. Notably, the bill also makes clear that neither the United States nor Israel are party to the International Criminal Court (ICC) and therefore should not be subject to its investigations, and requires that the secretary of state develop a strategy to counter “politically-motivated investigations” at the ICC. The same day, 29 bipartisan House lawmakers sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken a letter urging the administration to expand the Abraham Accords in Africa. On June 2, the chair and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID), announced their plans to introduce new legislation to expand the Abraham Accords in the coming weeks. It is unclear whether this Senate legislation is directly related to H.R. 3792.

Senate Abraham Accords Caucus Introduces Bill to Expand Cybersecurity Cooperation. On May 31, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-NV), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), James Lankford (R-OK), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), all members of the Senate Abraham Accords Caucus, introduced S.1777, the Abraham Accords Cybersecurity Cooperation Act of 2023. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would authorize cybersecurity cooperation between the Abraham Accords party states: Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and Bahrain. Cooperation efforts would include information sharing, helping partners respond to cybersecurity threats, and joint cybersecurity training and exercises. Senators Rosen and Ernst highlighted Iran in their comments about the new legislation, and Senator Rosen said that the bill “will help strengthen [US] cybersecurity defenses against shared threats.” The bill follows efforts by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to expand cooperation under the accords in response to Iranian cyberattacks, and is intended to give force to these DHS efforts.

Representatives Lawler and Moskowitz Introduce Bill Imposing Sanctions on Individuals Assisting Iranian Sanctions Evasion. On May 31, Representatives Michael Lawler (R-NY) and Jared Moskowitz (D-FL) introduced H.R. 3774, the Stop Harboring Iranian Petroleum (SHIP) Act. The bill would direct President Biden to impose sanctions on foreign individuals who knowingly aid and abet Iranian petroleum exports in violation of existing US sanctions. The legislation would also allow sanctions on adult family members of sanctioned individuals and anyone who “knowingly engages in a significant transaction” with any individuals sanctioned by the bill. Sanctions authorized by the SHIP act would include property freezes and visa bans and would remain in effect until Iran “no longer repeatedly provides support for international terrorism” and has dismantled its ballistic missile, nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons programs.

Representative Lawler Introduces Bill in Response to CUNY Graduation Speech. On May 31, Representative Michael Lawler (R-NY) introduced H.R. 3773, the Stop Anti-Semitism on College Campuses Act. The legislation seeks to restrict federal funding to college campuses that “promote anti-Semitism on their campuses,” and comes in response to recent controversy over a May 12 graduation speech at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, in which a graduating student, Fatima Mohammed, criticized Israel’s human rights violations. Since the speech, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Representative Ritchie Torres (D-NY) have attacked both Mohammed and CUNY for what they label antisemitic speech. Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), meanwhile, has come out in support of Mohammed, stating, “Speaking up against the apartheid government of Israel is not hate speech.”

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Phillips and Wilson Lead Eight Colleagues in Letter on US Funding for Tunisia. On May 31, Representatives Dean Phillips (D-MN) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) led eight bipartisan representatives of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in a letter urging the chair and ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on State and Foreign Operations, Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Barbara Lee (D-CA), to include economic aid to “support the Tunisian people and pro-democracy civil society in the country” in upcoming congressional appropriations. Tunisia has been democratically backsliding since July 2021, and the Biden administration’s Fiscal Year 2024 budget request slashed aid to Tunisian civil society while maintaining security assistance. In their letter, the representatives urge that cutting further aid and inserting no minimum funding requirements for economic aid must not come “at the expense of the Tunisian people and civil society.”

Senator Risch and Representative McCaul Send Letter to Secretary Blinken on Sudan. On May 26, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID) and Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Michael McCaul (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the Biden administration’s response to the crisis in Sudan. In the letter, Senator Risch and Representative McCaul ask Secretary Blinken 12 questions, covering everything from internal dissent to Sudan policy since 2019 and the steps that the State Department is taking to reform Sudan’s security sector and create a lasting peace. The letter came two days before a US-Saudi statement urging the Sudanese Army and its rival, the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces to extend the latest week-long cease-fire. Though the cease-fire did not completely stop the fighting that continues in Sudan, the United States and Saudi Arabia emphasized that the “imperfect” cease-fire was still necessary to deliver “urgently needed humanitarian assistance to the Sudanese people.”

Representatives McCaul and Gregory Meeks Send Letter to Secretary Blinken on Lebanon. On May 30, the chair and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul (R-TX) and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern over the political and economic crisis in Lebanon. The letter emphasizes that Lebanon still has no president “despite months of negotiation,” and that “Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah seeks to strengthen its grip over the country” in the wake of extreme inflation and poverty. Representatives McCaul and Meeks also recommend that the Biden administration continue to investigate the August 2020 Beirut Port Blast and impose sanctions on “individuals contributing to corruption and impeding progress in the country.” This week, the Biden administration said that it is considering sanctions on individuals involved in corruption.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds FY24 MENA Funding Hearing. On May 31, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Subcommittee held a hearing on the US Fiscal Year 2024 MENA budget request, featuring testimony from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and Deputy USAID Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Jeanne Pryor. During the hearing, Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) pressed the two officials on continued US security assistance for Tunisia and Egypt given these regimes’ grave human rights violations. In response to multiple questions about leveraging US funding to expand the Abraham Accords, Assistant Secretary Leaf routinely cited the new budget’s inclusion of a $90 million MENA Opportunity Fund to use for regional integration. Significantly, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) demanded the US security coordinator’s report on Shireen Abu Akleh’s death by Friday June 2, 2023, telling Leaf that he has “run out of patience” with the State Department. Senator Van Hollen also pressed Leaf about an Israeli raid in Jenin in March, where Israeli soldiers extrajudicially killed a 14-year-old civilian, Omar Awadin, as detailed by a recent Washington Post investigation. Leaf committed to providing Senator Van Hollen with a list of the units involved in the killing in order to comply with the Leahy Law. Finally, Leaf told Senator Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) that the State Department is considering sanctions on Lebanese government officials, such as Lebanese Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri, who is preventing the election of a president in Lebanon.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

President Biden Congratulates Erdoğan on Reelection, Discusses Sweden’s NATO Membership. On May 29, President Joe Biden congratulated Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on his recent reelection. Notably, Presidents Biden and Erdoğan discussed Sweden’s potential accession to NATO during their phone call. Turkey is seeking to buy billions of dollars’ worth of F-16 fighter jets, but the Biden administration is delaying the sale until Turkey approves Sweden’s NATO entry. Turkey has so far refused to approve Sweden’s bid for NATO membership because of Kurdistan Workers’ Party activism in Stockholm, which Turkey wants the Swedish government to address. On May 30, Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Menendez (D-NJ) said that he will not approve an F-16 sale to Turkey unless Erdoğan takes a “less belligerent” position on Sweden, its neighbors, and human rights. Senator Menendez, who has the power to place a congressional hold on weapons sales, also said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has assured him that the administration will respect his hold.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Meets with Emirati National Security Advisor. On June 2, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Emirati National Security Advisor Tahnoon bin Zayed Al Nahyan in Washington. The two discussed the UAE’s hosting of the COP28 climate conference, clean energy technologies, the expansion of the Abraham Accords, and the United States’ commitment to deter threats against the UAE.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Meets with Israeli Officials. On June 1, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Israeli Minister of Strategic Affairs Ron Dermer. The officials discussed the US-Israel Strategic Consultative Group, continued efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the growing Russia-Iran military relationship, and Israel’s integration into the Middle East. Sullivan also stressed the need to improve Palestinians’ lives.

2) Department of State

UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield to Push for Permanent opening of Syrian Border Crossings. On May 30, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that the United States will introduce a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution in July to authorize the opening of border crossings into Syria at Bab al-Hawa, Bab al-Salaam, and al-Rai. The border crossings aim to increase humanitarian support to Syria. On May 13, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed to a three-month extension on the use of the latter two border crossings for earthquake-related aid. The regime opened the Turkey-Syria border crossings following international pressure after the February 6 earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey. The coming US-led resolution would likely make these temporary earthquake-related extensions more permanent. In the past, both Russia and China have used their UNSC veto power to decrease the number of border openings from four in 2014 to two in January 2020, to only one in July 2021.

Secretary Blinken Congratulates Turkish Foreign Minister on Erdoğan’s Reelection. On May 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to offer congratulations on Turkish President Erdoğan’s reelection. In the call, Secretary Blinken emphasized the “importance of NATO unity” and the fact that “Sweden is ready to join the Alliance now,” thereby joining President Biden in pressuring the Turkish government to admit Sweden into NATO.

Secretary Blinken to Travel to Saudi Arabia. From June 6 to June 8, Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia, where he will attend a US-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) ministerial meeting and co-host a ministerial meeting of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud. On June 2, ahead of Secretary Blinken’s trip, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Arabian Peninsula Affairs Daniel Benaim and Deputy Special Envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS Ian McCary discussed the upcoming trip and the secretary’s policy priorities.

3) Department of Defense

UAE Says it Will Not Participate in US-Led Gulf Maritime Forces. On May 31, the UAE said that it would no longer be taking part in US-led efforts to protect Gulf shipping. Though the country has not formally left the Combined Maritime Forces—a partnership of 38 nations headquartered at a US naval base in Bahrain—it has dropped out of recent efforts to respond to Iranian tanker seizures and attacks. Emirati officials were reportedly frustrated that, in their view, the United States was not doing enough to deter Iran’s seizures of oil tankers, like those that took place on April 27 and May 3.

CENTCOM Announces “Eagle Resolve 23” Joint Exercise with Saudi Arabia. On May 28, US Central Command (CENTCOM) announced the “Eagle Resolve 23” joint training exercise with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council partner nations. Eagle Resolve 23 will focus on US-Saudi force readiness and interoperability and aims to contribute to “regional stability” in the Middle East.

CENTCOM Commander Visits Israel to Observe Training Exercises. On May 30, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla arrived in Israel for a three-day-long visit to observe the Israel Defense Forces’ (IDF) “Firm Hand” training exercise. Firm Hand is part of two upcoming weeks of IDF training to simulate a multi-front conflict. General Kurilla’s trip to Israel comes amid rising tensions with Iran in the region and the Biden administration’s open support for Israel taking its security against Iran into its own hands.

4) Department of the Treasury

Biden Administration Sanctions Sudanese Companies Fueling Ongoing Violence. On June 1, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan announced the Biden administration’s first sanctions to address the ongoing conflict in Sudan, pursuant to a May 4 executive order issued by President Biden. The Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned four Sudanese companies, two affiliated with the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and two with the country’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF). The four companies are weapons-producing affiliates of the rival generals who are behind the fighting that has been taking place in Sudan since April 15. Also on June 1, the US Embassy in Khartoum announced that recent US- and Saudi-brokered talks between the two sides in the conflict have failed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced further measures, including visa restrictions and an updated business advisory, to punish both the RSF and the SAF for their repeated cease-fire violations. On June 2, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Jim Risch (R-ID), who has been a habitual critic of the administration’s Sudan policy, criticized the new sanctions, stating that they “do not even represent a half-step in what needs to happen.”

Treasury Department Sanctions IRGC-QF Operatives Involved in US Assassination Plots. On June 1, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned three Iran- and Turkey-based members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an IRGC-QF affiliated company, and two senior officials of the IRGC Intelligence Organization. The sanctions target the individuals and the company for their involvement in assassination attempts on former US government officials, Iranian American dual-nationals, and Iranian dissidents. While the OFAC announcement does not cite specific assassination plots, it mentions Iranian citizen Shahram Poursafi, who was charged by the Justice Department last year for attempting to assassinate former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former National Security Advisor John Bolton.

Treasury Department Uses Caesar Sanctions on Syrian Financial Facilitators. On May 30, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned two Syrian money service businesses involved in international sanctions evasion, as well as three brothers who own and operate one of the businesses. The brothers and the businesses are accused of helping the Assad regime, Hezbollah, and the IRGC-QF evade existing sanctions and continue to participate in the international financial system. These new sanctions also come just before the Biden administration is expected to release its plan to address the Assad regime’s illicit Captagon trade.

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Company over Internet Suppression. On June 2, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Iranian company Avran Cloud, as well as two of its employees and an affiliate company based in the UAE. According to the announcement, Avran Cloud has been a key partner for Iran’s Information and Communications Technology Ministry, which has been involved in internet suppression during the mass protests that first began in September 2022. The company also has ties to senior Iranian government officials and the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.