Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senators Menendez and Risch Introduce Bill to Safeguard Tunisian Democracy. On June 15, the chair and the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced S. 2006, the Safeguarding Tunisian Democracy Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would cut State Department funding for Tunisia by 25 percent until the agency can certify to Congress that Tunisian President Kais Saied has ended his July 25, 2021 State of Emergency. The legislation would also create a $100 million Tunisia Democracy Support Fund, which would only be made available after the Secretary of State confirms to Congress that the Tunisian government has improved democratic benchmarks such as the restoration of judicial independence, the end of the use of military courts for civilian trials, and clear and credible steps to restore freedom of the press.

Representatives Schakowsky, Omar, and Senator Booker Reintroduce Bill to Combat Global Islamophobia. On June 8 and 9, Representatives Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), and Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) reintroduced H.R. 3985 and its counterpart S.1916, the Combating International Islamophobia Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would require the State Department to create an office and a special envoy to monitor and combat Islamophobia around the world. In their comments about the bill, Representatives Schakowsky and Omar highlighted the global nature of Islamophobia and “anti-Muslim bigotry,” mentioning the genocide of the Rohingya in Burma, oppression of Uyghurs in China, and attacks on Muslim refugees in Canada and New Zealand.

Representatives Phillips and Green Introduce House Companion Bill to Repatriate Islamic State Detainees to Syria. On June 13, Ranking Member of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia Dean Phillips (D-MN) and colleague Mark Green (R-TN) introduced H.R. 4078, the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act, as a companion to S.356 introduced by Senators Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The bill, if passed and signed into law, would create a “senior coordinator” in the executive branch to work with relevant agencies on matters regarding members of the so-called Islamic State (IS) who are detained in refugee camps. The legislation would seek to repatriate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate these individuals to “prevent the resurgence of [IS]” and stop refugee camps from being “drivers of instability” in the region.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Tenney and Gottheimer Lead 32 Republicans and 1 Democrat in Pressing World Leaders on Iran Sanctions. On June 8, Representatives Claudia Tenney (R-NY) and Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) led 32 Republican colleagues and one Democrat in a letter urging UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to initiate the snapback sanctions mechanism from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The letter stresses that, considering the expansion of Iran’s nuclear program over the last four years, “time is running out to curb [Iran’s] nuclear ambitions.” Because the United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, all other signatory states can still impose the sanctions that are outlined in the deal.

Senator Blumenthal Sends Letters to PGA Tour, LIV Golf Requesting Merger Records. On June 12, Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), the chair of the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, sent letters to PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan and LIV Golf CEO Gregory Norman requesting records and communications regarding the two companies’ planned merger. In the letters, Senator Blumenthal expresses concern regarding “the reasons for and terms behind the announced agreement.” According to Senator Blumenthal, LIV Golf, which is funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund (PIF), could be described as part of Saudi Arabia’s sportswashing efforts, part of “an attempt to soften the country’s image around the world” and to draw attention away from its human rights abuses at home and abroad. Senator Blumenthal also questions how the PGA Tour plans to preserve its tax-exempt status as a non-profit in the United States, stating that the matter raises questions as to “whether a foreign government may indirectly benefit from provisions in US tax laws meant to promote not-for-profit business associations.”

Representatives Stefanik and Lamborn Lead Seven Republican Colleagues in Letter to Defense Secretary Austin on China-Iran Partnerships. On June 13, Representatives Elise Stefanik (R-NY) and Doug Lamborn (R-CO) led seven Republican colleagues from the House Armed Services Committee in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III requesting information on China-Iran defense cooperation. More specifically, Representatives Stefanik and Lamborn expressed concern regarding Iran’s “continually increasing capabilities, further enhanced by ongoing illicit technology transfers among [US] adversaries.” They also request an exhaustive list of technology transfers between China and Iran and Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds FY24 MENA Region Funding Hearing. On June 13, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia Subcommittee held a hearing on the US Fiscal Year 2024 (FY24) MENA region budget request, featuring testimony from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and USAID Deputy Assistant Administrator for the Middle East Jeanne Pryor. During the hearing, Subcommittee Chair Joe Wilson (R-SC) and Representative Jim Baird (R-IN) pressed Assistant Secretary Leaf on Iran’s role in the Middle East, focusing on the upcoming expiration of a UN Security Council resolution to stop Iran from buying and selling drones and the ongoing tensions in the region despite a Chinese negotiated detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ranking Member Dean Phillips (D-MN) asked Assistant Secretary Leaf and Assistant Administrator Pryor about the political and economic crisis in Tunisia, reiterating that the cuts to Tunisian aid reflected in the FY24 budget request should not come at the expense of the Tunisian people. Assistant Administrator Pryor agreed, stating that the FY24 budget was “recalibrating” assistance away from Tunisian President Kais Saied’s government to provide $25 million in aid to private Tunisian citizens and civil society. Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA), who does not sit on the subcommittee, harshly criticized the State Department and Secretary of State Antony Blinken for making no mention of slain Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in a summary of the conversations that Secretary Blinken had during a recent trip to Saudi Arabia. Assistant Secretary Leaf insisted that Khashoggi’s murder has “by no means” escaped the interest of the State Department, despite efforts by the Biden administration to focus on the “business at hand” and on the shared interests of Saudi Arabia and the United States.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Declassifies Intelligence Showing Iranian Drone Factory in Russia. On June 9, the Biden administration released satellite imagery of what intelligence officials believe to be a drone manufacturing plant in Russia constructed with Iranian support. According to National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby, the factory east of Moscow could be “fully operational” by early next year, and comes as part of the “unprecedented” defense cooperation between Russia and Iran during the war in Ukraine.

White House and State Department Reiterate US Disapproval of New Israeli Settlement Expansion. On June 12, National Security Spokesperson John Kirby reacted to recent plans by Israel to expand settlements in the West Bank by at least 4,000 housing units. Kirby reiterated the Biden administration’s policy on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and pushed for a two-state solution, saying, “We don’t want to see actions taken that are going to make a two-state solution that much more difficult to achieve.” On June 18, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller said that the US is “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s advancement of the plans, calling on the government to fulfil its obligations from the Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh communiques earlier this year. The far-right Israeli government has routinely defied the Biden administration, and the joint communiques, by authorizing settlement expansions since January.

Biden Administration Welcomes Hajj Flights between Yemen and Saudi Arabia. On June 17 and 18, the White House and the State Department welcomed the announcement that Yemenis can now fly to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj, the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. The Biden administration said that the development marks significant progress in de-escalating the war in Yemen and cited the negotiation efforts of top Biden administration officials. The State Department celebrated the “progress over the last 15 months” since the UN-sponsored truce began, but emphasized that “more is needed to achieve a durable ceasefire and the start of Yemeni-Yemeni talks.”

White House Welcomes Strengthening Ties between Iraq and the Gulf Cooperation Council. On June 16, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adam Hodge remarked upon the June 15 visit of Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani to Baghdad on June 15. Hodge welcomed the visit, stating, “The United States fully supports Iraq’s sovereignty, independence, and increasing integration into the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and broader Arab region.” According to the statement, Iraq has moved toward energy self-sufficiency through “steps to connect its energy grid to the GCC’s and Jordan’s grids,” including a project to increase natural gas capture within the country and “serve the needs of the Iraqi people while reducing emissions.”

2) Department of State

Departments of State, Commerce, Justice, and the Treasury Release Iranian Sanctions Guide for Private Industry. On June 9, the State Department Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation published a joint advisory with the Departments of Commerce, Justice, and the Treasury on Iran’s “procurement, development, and proliferation” of drones. The advisory puts Iranian drones into their regional and global context, underlining the ways that they are used by Russia in its war against Ukraine and by Houthi rebels in Yemen. The advisory also describes key components for Iranian drones, existing US export controls and sanctions, and potential penalties for aiding and abetting Iranian drone construction.

State Department Sends Letter to the United Nations Seeking US Reaccession to UNESCO. On June 12, UNESCO Directory-General Audrey Azoulay announced the United States’ intention to rejoin the organization, citing the receipt of a private letter from the State Department. The United States has not provided funding for UNESCO since 2011, when Palestine became a full member of the organization, and it formally left UNESCO in 2017 due to what it claimed at the time was “anti-Israel bias.” The State Department letter and the Biden administration’s decision to rejoin UNESCO comes after Congress authorized financial contributions to UNESCO in December 2022.

Secretary Blinken Discusses Aid to Tunisia. On June 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani held a joint press session and answered questions on, among other items, €1 billion of aid for Tunisia that the European Commission recently announced. Though Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Tajani both welcomed the aid package, they emphasized the need for additional aid to Tunisia from the International Monetary Fund.

US Special Envoy for Yemen Lenderking Travels to Saudi Arabia. On June 12, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to Saudi Arabia follow up on “discussions held by Secretary Blinken and his counterparts in the region” regarding the conflict in Yemen. Special Envoy Lenderking was expected to meet with Yemeni and Saudi officials and with other international partners to “further expand the continuing benefits of the truce and launch a comprehensive peace process.” He will also discuss ongoing US efforts to prevent an oil spill from the Safer tanker, an oil storage vessel moored in the Red Sea that has not received critical maintenance since 2015.

State Department Downplays Talks of Iran Nuclear Negotiations. On June 13, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller responded to recent reports that the Biden administration is reentering nuclear negotiations with Iran. Miller addressed reports that the United States would initiate a prisoner exchange with Iran to show goodwill for renewed nuclear negotiations, saying that, “The President is committed to ensuring that Iran never obtains a nuclear weapon,” and that reports about the United States’ intentions to restart negotiations are “either wrong or completely misleading.”

Under Secretary Zeya Announces Additional Humanitarian Assistance for Syria. On June 15, Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Uzra Zeya announced $920 million in additional US humanitarian assistance for Syria. The United States has provided almost $16.9 billion in aid since the beginning of the crisis in Syria 12 years ago, with the announcement bringing FY 2023 humanitarian assistance alone to $1.1 billion. Under Secretary Zeya also emphasized US support for the three border crossings currently in use “to ensure predictable humanitarian access to millions in need in northwest Syria,” and for a political solution to “end the suffering of the Syrian people.”

State Department Welcomes Restoration of Diplomatic Ties between Qatar and the UAE. On June 19, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller congratulated Qatar and the UAE for resuming diplomatic ties and reopening embassies. Miller stated, “This is another important step forward among our Gulf Cooperation Council partners to promote regional stability and mutual cooperation.”

Assistant Secretary Leaf to Visit Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. From June 17 to June 25, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf will travel to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, according to a State Department media note. In her travel to Israel, Assistant Secretary Leaf will discuss “areas of mutual interest” and “constraining Iran’s destabilizing behavior.” In Palestine, Leaf will meet with Palestinian leadership to discuss “priority issues in US-Palestinian relations, including US efforts to support the Palestinian people.” Finally, she will discuss “shared bilateral and regional priorities” with Jordanian officials.

3) Department of Defense

22 US Troops Injured in “Helicopter Mishap” in Northeastern Syria. On June 12, CENTCOM announced that 22 US service members in northeastern Syria were injured in a “helicopter mishap.” According to CENTCOM, “no enemy fire was reported,” and “the cause of the incident is under investigation.”

US Air Force Deploys F-22 Fighter Jets to the Middle East in Response to Russian Aircraft. On June 14, CENTCOM announced that the US Air Force deployed F-22 fighter jets to the Middle East “in the wake of increasingly unsafe and unprofessional behavior by Russian aircraft in the region.” In a statement, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla said that Russian forces’ “regular violation of agreed upon airspace deconfliction measures increases the risk of escalation or miscalculation.”