Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Imposing Sanctions on Iran’s Khamenei and Raisi. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S. 2374 (the text can be found here) to instruct the president to levy Global Magnitsky sanctions against Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President-elect Ebrahim Raisi of Iran.

DEFEND Act. Florida Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D) and Maria Elvira Salazar (R) teamed up to introduce H.R. 4424, or the Deadly Escalation by Foreign Entities Notification and Disclosure (DEFEND) Act. Murphy and Salazar explicitly point to Iran’s support for militias in Iraq as one reason behind this bill, so the pair want the secretary of defense to notify Congress any time there is a serious threat to US service members by foreign governments with which the United States is not at war.

FY22 Defense Budget. The full House Appropriations Committee formally adopted the fiscal year 2022 Pentagon budget after passing a few notable amendments. For example, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) successfully ushered through two amendments that would repeal the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for Use of Military Force. Overall, no changes were made to spending levels and the full House is set to vote on the $705.9 billion budget.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Meeks Details CODEL Trip to Israel, West Bank, and Qatar. Upon his return from a congressional delegation (CODEL) trip to the region, Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-New York) released a statement indicating that the group met with members of Israel’s new government and discussed Israeli security and the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Meeks said he spoke with representatives of the Palestinian Authority about crucial reforms they must undertake. He also met with Palestinian youth and members of the business community in Ramallah as well as Palestinian civil society leaders in East Jerusalem. In Qatar, the group met with high-ranking officials to understand the threats posed by Iran and to discuss economic and security issues.

Reps. Biggs and Lee Write to President Biden on Recent Air Strikes. Reps. Andy Biggs (R-Arizona) and Barbara Lee (D-California) sent a letter to President Joe Biden regarding the recent US air strikes on militia groups in Iraq and Syria. Questioning the constitutionality of the strikes and the administration’s justifications, the duo requested a written or in-person briefing detailing the reasoning behind the use of force absent congressional authorization.

Egyptian Spy Chief Makes a Stir on Capitol Hill. Abbas Kamel, the head of Egyptian intelligence, reportedly made a stir on Capitol Hill during his recent trip to Washington. Kamel, armed with a document he touted as proof, told lawmakers and their aides that the United States was failing to uphold a signed agreement regarding US citizen Mohamed Soltan. To hear Kamel tell it, the US government supposedly agreed to imprison Soltan for life in the United States if Egypt released the activist from custody, which it did in 2015. The fact that Kamel would so boldly demand that Soltan, a US citizen, be imprisoned for his political activism in Egypt demonstrates Cairo’s perception of having a special status on Capitol Hill, thanks to decades of bipartisan US support for regimes in Egypt.

3) Nominations

Biden Secures New Confirmation, Taps Ambassador for Turkey. The Biden Administration continued along its path to confirming key members to its State Department team. The Senate voted 73-24 to confirm Uzra Zeya as Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. In addition, President Biden nominated former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake to serve as US ambassador to Turkey.

4) Hearings and Briefings

A Conversation with Rep. Tom Malinowski. On July 12, Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey) participated in a virtual briefing with the Middle East Institute. In giving his assessment of the Biden Administration’s Middle East policy, the congressman said the administration has been true to its promise to balance US relations with states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates with upholding US values of human rights. He also said that the administration’s rhetorical and moral commitments are being tested, particularly by Egypt. Malinowski expressed concern about the administration’s unwillingness to act further, in addition to imposing its so-called “Khashoggi ban” on Saudi officials for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. For both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, Malinowski argued that the administration must do more to signal to these governments and others that the extraterritorial, cross-border intimidation, harassment, or murder of dissidents will come with extraordinarily high consequences.

It was also notable that Malinowski, who is a vocal advocate for Tunisia and its young democracy, argued that lawmakers should redirect at least half of the more than $1 billion the United States provides to Egypt to security and economic assistance for Tunisia.

FY22 USAID Priorities. On July 14, the House Foreign Affairs and Senate Foreign Relations Committees both held hearings on the Biden Administration’s fiscal year 2022 budget request for the US Agency for International Development. In both cases, committee members heard testimony from USAID Administrator Samantha Power, and Republicans repeatedly questioned the value of providing aid to the Palestinian people through development programs. For example, on the House side Rep. Brian Mast (R-Florida) censured all aid to Palestinians and suggested that support for a two-state solution would result in a “second Iran” and a “second terror-led state.” Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) joined in, criticizing the Biden Administration for restoring aid to the Palestinians without getting enough in return; he suggested that the United States is funding anti-Israel and anti-US organizations in the Palestinian territories. Other Republicans like Joe Wilson (South Carolina) and Darrell Issa (California) expressed skepticism about providing aid to Palestinians living in the besieged Gaza Strip.

Republicans across the Capitol were not less skeptical. Senator James Risch (R-Idaho) said that assistance to the Palestinian people will be heavily scrutinized by the committee as long as the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) social welfare program for families of incarcerated Palestinians remains in place; he further urged the Biden administration to limit aid to Palestine for that reason. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also expressed distrust of how funds to Gaza will be used. In both cases, however, Power went on undeterred and appeared to cut off hope that the Biden Administration would implement the Republicans’ policy preferences when it comes to aid to Palestine. In fact, Power told House Republicans that the Israeli government itself supports USAID programs in Gaza. She repeatedly asserted that her agency always follows the law and does not assist the PA or Hamas directly, only Palestinian civil society.

During both hearings, lawmakers urged Power to adopt their preferred policies in areas outside Israel and the occupied territories. For example, Rep. Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) requested that USAID continue funding relief programs for religious and ethnic groups in Iraq and Syria who have been victims of genocide perpetrated by the so-called Islamic State, particularly to Yazidi, Chaldean, Assyrian, and Shia Muslim communities. Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Illinois) asked how USAID will support vaccinations in Syria without benefiting President Bashar al-Assad, and Rep. Malinowski spoke on the need to prioritize vaccination efforts in Tunisia. In the Senate, Risch said the United States should continue to support Sudan’s fragile democratic transition and Senator Chris Murphy probed Power about reform efforts that USAID could implement to help Lebanon’s faltering economy.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

NSC Director McGurk Discusses US Withdrawal from Iraq. According to reports, Brett McGurk, the director for the Middle East at the National Security Council, told Iraqi officials during his recent visit to Baghdad that the United States will withdraw its remaining troops from Iraq in the near future. The Biden Administration denied the report, but McGurk did meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi on July 15, prompting Kadhimi’s office to tweet about the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq.

2) Department of State

State Department Officials Speak with Gulf Arab Partners. Top State Department officials have held phone calls and in-person meetings with both Qatari and Emirati officials recently. On July 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke over the phone with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani regarding regional security, the situation in Lebanon, and Doha’s role in Afghanistan peace talks. On July 15, Blinken’s deputy, Wendy Sherman, met with the UAE’s Presidential Advisor Anwar Gargash to discuss ways to promote peace and stability in the Middle East. That meeting came after Gargash held other meetings with officials like Special Envoy for Yemen Timothy Lenderking and Tennessee Senator Bill Hagerty (R).

Hady Amr Visits Israel, Occupied Territories for Talks. Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs Hady Amr recently traveled to Israel and the occupied West Bank for discussions with Israeli and Palestinian Authority officials. Amr reportedly spoke with Israeli officials about ways Israel can help support the struggling PA. In addition, Amr met with members of Palestinian civil society in Ramallah.

3) Department of Justice

DoJ Unveils Warrants for Iranians Plotting to Kidnap US Journalist. Prosecutors at the Department of Justice announced charges for four Iranians accused of plotting the kidnaping of a US journalist in New York City. The four men apparently are connected to Iranian intelligence and allegedly conspired to kidnap the US-based journalist and take the intended victim back to Iran.

III. Judicial Branch

Court Rules Iran, Syria, and Foreign Banks Liable for Attacks. In a ruling being described by some as “historic,” a federal court found that Iran, Syria, and Iranian banks can be held responsible for terror attacks that kill US citizens. The court ruled that because they sponsor groups like Hamas, the entities can be held liable when Hamas kills Americans.

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