Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Representatives Aim to Block US Security Pacts with Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Ro Khanna (D-California) on July 5 introduced amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act that would classify written security agreements with foreign powers as treaties and subject them to a congressional vote. Ahead of President Joe Biden’s Middle East trip later this month, rumors have circulated that he may offer security guarantees to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and establish an “air defense alliance” that aims to counter Iranian threats in the region. Biden’s planned meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been met with intense scrutiny from House members, who have cited issues like human rights violations, the Yemen Civil War, and lack of cooperation on oil and gas production.

House Democrats Urge Additional Investigation into Abu Akleh’s Death. On July 5, 11 House Democrats, led by Rep. Andre Carson (D-Indiana) introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would require a joint FBI–State Department investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and determine if US weapons were used in her killing. This comes as the State Department issued a statement saying that the killing was unintentional, even though Israeli gunfire was “likely responsible” for Abu Akleh’s death. This amendment echoes requests made in a May 19 letter spearheaded by Reps. Carson and Lou Correa (D-California).

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Congressional Delegation Travels to Israel. A bipartisan delegation of representatives led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) traveled to Israel to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials and to discuss the Abraham Accords, Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and US aid to Israel. This trip comes after the Knesset voted to dissolve itself and declared that elections will be held November 1, and ahead of President Biden’s visit to Israel, slated for mid-July. The representatives met with new caretaker Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, former Israeli Prime Ministers Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, Ra’am Party Leader Mansour Abbas, and several State Department officials working in Israel. Representative Gottheimer noted that all of the leaders expressed “great excitement” regarding regional cooperation, and that the Abraham Accords have sparked a “huge sea change” in Israel.

Senator Graham Travels to Iraq. On July 4, Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) traveled to Iraq to visit US troops and meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Senator Graham has been a longtime supporter of the US military presence in Iraq, calling for additional troops in 2015 to fight the so-called Islamic State (IS). In his meeting with al-Kadhimi, the two discussed ways to develop economic, cultural, and educational relations to best serve the American and Iraqi peoples. Senator Graham reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to providing long-term assistance to Iraq, and discussed recent requests from the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for $160 million to fund economic development projects in the country, as well as democratic leadership and rebuilding after the devastation caused by IS. Senator Graham also met with Iraqi President Barham Salih and Parliamentary Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi later that day.

Lawmakers Urge Renewal of Syrian Border Crossing Resolution. On July 6, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman and ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, released a statement supporting the renewal of UN Security Council Resolution 2585, which allows humanitarian aid access at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing in Syria. Russia, one of five permanent members of the UN Security Council, has sought to close the border crossing in the past, citing violations of Syrian sovereignty.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

White House Holds Off-the-Record Briefing on Biden’s Middle East Trip. On July 8, Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer and National Security Council Director of Partnerships Moshtayeen Ahmad held an off-the-record briefing on President Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia. Finer reiterated Biden’s broader goals for the visit, including fostering international partnerships, creating a more “stable, peaceful, and integrated region” that serves broad US interests, strengthening Arab-Israeli ties, discussing bilateral issues with Saudi leaders, and more. Additionally, Finer criticized Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the recent killings of Palestinians, including journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, and said that the president will make additional humanitarian funding announcements for the West Bank. President Biden will also reiterate US commitment to the two-state solution. Finer also defended Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, saying the trip aims to “defend peace and stability” and that Biden is not overlooking any human rights violations committed by the Saudi government. And while Finer said that global energy security does play a role in Biden’s visit, it is only one of many priorities on the president’s agenda.

2) Department of State

US Delegation Meets with Taliban in Doha. On June 29 and 30, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West, along with representatives from the State Department, USAID, and the Department of the Treasury, met with senior Taliban officials in Doha, Qatar. The US expressed condolences over the recent earthquakes in Afghanistan and discussed the $774 million in humanitarian aid the US has provided since August 2021, as well as how to preserve central bank reserves and the availability of currency. US officials also reiterated their support for women’s rights in Afghanistan, particularly the right to attend school and to work, and expressed that improved human rights there will be key in normalizing US relations with the Taliban. Finally, US officials expressed concern regarding the presence of terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and IS in Afghanistan, while Taliban officials reiterated that they will not allow Afghan territory to be used to threaten any country.

US and Israel Sign Information-Sharing Agreement for Visas. On July 7, Israeli Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev and US Deputy Ambassador to Israel Jonathan Shrier signed an agreement that would enable the sharing of fingerprints and criminal records for any citizens seeking visas—a key condition for any country aiming to join the US Visa Waiver Program. Israel has sought to join the program for years and it has been a top priority of Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked, but the Knesset must pass further legislation to officially join the program. The US is a common destination for Israeli citizens, who often travel for tourism or business purposes.

Blinken Calls Qatari Foreign Affairs Minister Al Thani. On July 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. They discussed US partnerships with Qatar on regional issues, and Secretary Blinken thanked Al Thani for Qatar’s recent diplomatic assistance with Afghanistan and Iran, and for providing $60 million in aid to the Lebanese Armed Forces.

US Commemorates Algeria’s Independence Day. On July 5, the State Department issued a statement extending best wishes to the Algerian government and the Algerian people for the country’s independence day. Secretary Blinken highlighted his March 2022 visit to the country and US-Algeria ties going back to the 18th century, and also expressed excitement about future plans to advance shared economic and security interests with Algeria.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Sanctions Petrochemical Network with Iran Ties. On July 6, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) sanctioned an international network that has used Gulf-based companies to facilitate the sale and transport of petrochemical products from Iran to East Asia. This designation was made in accordance with Executive Order 13846 and follows sanctions on a similar petrochemical network enacted on June 16. The Treasury Department identified Jam Petrochemical Company, Edgar Commercial Solutions FZE, Lustro Industry Limited, and several others as organizations that have used front companies to illicitly sell and transport petrochemical products out of Iran. Additionally, Morteza Rajabieslami and Mahdieh Sanchuli, Iranian nationals based in the UAE, are alleged to have partnered with Naftiran Intertrade Company (NICO) to transport petrochemical products out of Iran. NICO was sanctioned in 2008 for being owned by the Government of Iran. Due to these sanctions, all property connected to these individuals and entities that are owned or controlled by persons in the US must be blocked and reported to the OFAC.