Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Tenney Reintroduces the Anti-BDS Labeling Act. On August 8, Representative Claudia Tenney (R-NY) introduced H.R.5179, the Anti-BDS Labeling Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would require an act of Congress for the Biden administration to rescind a regulatory executive order requiring that goods imported from the West Bank and Gaza “must be marked to indicate their origin as ‘Israel.’” The legislation would also prevent the State Department and US Customs and Border Patrol from using funds to rescind or change the current US policy. Senate Republicans led by Senator Tom Cotton (R-AR) previously introduced the Anti-BDS Labeling Act, S.2489, in 2021, which called for identical measures to prevent Biden administration action on Israeli imports.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Jeffries and Hoyer Lead House Democrat Delegation to Israel. Last week, Representatives Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) and Steny Hoyer (D-MD) led a delegation of 24 House Democrats to Israel as part of a trip organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee-affiliated American Israel Education Foundation. In a statement, Representative Jeffries said that delegation members would hold meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and meet with “various activists and stakeholders,” and would also discuss Iran’s nuclear capabilities, prospects for a two-state solution in Palestine, the “ongoing judicial reform debate,” combatting terror, and the further development of the Abraham Accords. On August 7, Representative Jeffries met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling the latter that he hoped Israel would seek “a broad consensus across the ideological spectrum” before continuing with planned judicial reforms.

Representative Meeks Leads 10 House Democrats in Letter Urging Secretary Blinken to Withhold Aid from Egypt. On August 10, Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY) led 10 House Democrats in a letter to Secretary Blinken urging the Biden administration to withhold $320 million in military aid conditioned on human rights from Egypt. Representative Meeks wrote that the despite the “historic, deeply rooted bilateral US-Egypt relationship,” the undersigned representatives were “strongly concerned by reports from both the State Department as well as numerous credible human rights and civil society organizations about the persistent and continued systemic violations of human rights in Egypt.”

Representative Smith Defends Iranian Prisoner Exchange. On August 13, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA), ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, defended the then developing US deal to trade prisoners with Iran. Representative Smith suggested it was “not a bounty” to strike a deal releasing five detained Americans in exchange for the release of $6 billion in Iranian assets.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

US Officials Report Agreement on Saudi-Israeli Normalization Framework. On August 9, unnamed US officials reported that the United States and Saudi Arabia have agreed on a framework for a Saudi-Israeli normalization deal in exchange for concessions to the Palestinians, US security guarantees, and civilian nuclear help. According to the Wall Street Journal, US officials expressed “cautious optimism” that they could finalize a deal within nine to 12 months, despite long odds against striking such an agreement. In the Senate, for example, Democratic Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) have warned that any deal that does not address “critical Palestinian questions” could fail to pass the chamber.

White House Confirms Release of Five Americans Detained in Iran. On August 10, National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson confirmed that Iran has released five “unjustly detained” Americans to house arrest. Spokesperson Watson also said that the Biden administration “will not rest until they are all back home in the United States,” echoing a similar message from the new special envoy for Iran, Abram Paley.

No Ongoing JCPOA Talks, National Security Spokesperson Kirby Confirms. On August 11, National Security Spokesperson John Kirby confirmed that the Biden administration is “not in talks with Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.” Spokesperson Kirby emphasized that the Biden administration is focused instead on bringing five American detainees home from Iran.

2) State Department

Secretary Blinken Recognizes Tunisian Activist at Inaugural Ceremony for Global Anti-Racism Champions. On August 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken named Saadia Mosbah, a Tunisian anti-racism activist, as one of six inaugural recipients of the Award for Global Anti-Racism Champions. Secretary Blinken recognized Mosbah for her founding of Mnemty (my dream) to “advance the rights of Black Tunisians.” Secretary Blinken noted that because of “the activism of countless Tunisians,” Tunisia became the first Arab country to criminalize racial discrimination in 2018.

US, UK, and Canada Announce Joint Sanctions Against Former Governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank. On August 10, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada announced sanctions against the former governor of Lebanon’s Central Bank, Riad Salameh, along with four associates for enriching themselves “at the expense of the Lebanese people” despite Lebanon’s ongoing economic crisis. The three governments made clear that the sanctions did not affect the Central Bank of Lebanon, only the corrupt individuals designated by the US Department of the Treasury.

State Department Stands Behind “Terror Attack” Label for Israeli Settler Violence in the West Bank. On August 7, State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller reaffirmed the department’s choice to label a recent settler-driven attack in the West Bank as “terror.” Spokesperson Miller said, “The thinking is that it was a terror attack…and that’s why we called it that. We have also been clear that accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of violent extremism, whoever the perpetrators are.” Israeli Agriculture Minister Avi Dichter, also a former counterterrorism chief from the Israeli Shin Bet internal security service, responded by saying, “I wouldn’t advise treating the US definition as a precise professional definition,” and by suggesting that the United States relied on media reports rather than intelligence to make its determination.

UN Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield Confronts Syria About Chemical Weapons at the UNSC. On August 8, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council that the Syrian government, which joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013 under Russian pressure, has “repeatedly lied to the international community” and to investigators about their use of chemical weapons. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield also said that the Biden administration would demand a full account of Syria’s chemical weapons program.

Secretary Blinken and Counselor Chollet Meet with Algerian Foreign Minister Attaf. On August 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Algerian Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf to discuss US-Algerian bilateral security cooperation. The two officials also discussed achieving peace in Ukraine, finding a political solution to conflict in Western Sahara, and Algeria’s election to the United Nations Security Council. On August 10, State Department Counselor Derek Chollet met with Foreign Minister Attaf to discuss developments in the Sahel region, Mali, and Niger. Counselor Chollet emphasized how the US-Algerian partnership promotes regional peace and security.

Interagency Delegation Participates in US-Israeli Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology. On August 9 and 10, an interagency delegation led by Acting Special Envoy for Critical and Emerging Technology Seth Center met with counterparts in the Israeli government and representatives from the private sector, academia, and civil society as part of the US-Israel Strategic High-Level Dialogue on Technology. The dialogue consisted of meetings of four working groups: Pandemic Preparedness, Climate Change, Artificial Intelligence, and Trusted Technology Ecosystems.

Secretary Blinken Welcomes Offloading of Oil from Safer Oil Tanker. On August 11, Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed news that a United Nations-led operation to offload oil onboard the FSO Safer had succeeded. The Safer, a “decaying 47-year-old oil supertanker moored off Yemen’s Red Sea coast,” had not received critical maintenance since the start of the Yemen’s civil war in 2015 and was at risk of spilling oil without intervention. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan also celebrated the successful operation, highlighting the efforts spearheaded by Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking to mobilize an international coalition to fund the operation.

Secretary Blinken and National Security Council Spokesperson Kirby Rule Out Sanctions Relief in Iranian Prisoner Swap. On August 10, Secretary of State Antony Blinken commented that “Iran will not be receiving any sanctions relief” as part of negotiations to bring five American prisoners home. Secretary Blinken stressed that any funds released to Iran could only be accessed for humanitarian purposes, which is already allowed under the current US sanctions regime. On August 11, National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby echoed Secretary Blinken’s comments, saying that any funds released could “only be accessed for food, medicine, medicinal equipment that would not have a dual military use.”

3) Department of Defense

Three Thousand Sailors and Marines Arrive in the Middle East. On August 6, more than 3,000 sailors and marines arrived in the Middle East as part of a pre-announced Department of Defense deployment. The armed US personnel are part of the Bataan Amphibious Ready Group and the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, each capable of launching aircraft and conducting amphibious missions. According to US Naval Forces Central Command, the deployment will provide “greater flexibility and maritime capability to US 5th Fleet,” which operates in approximately 2.5 million square miles of water including the Arabian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman, the Red Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean.

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Transits Strait of Hormuz, Visits the UAE and Bahrain. From August 6 to 8, CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla passed through the Strait of Hormuz and met with Emirati Armed Forces Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Issa Saif Mohammed al-Mazrouei to discuss the US-Emirati security partnership and address “regional challenges.” General Kurilla held similar meetings in Bahrain, where he met King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Lieutenant General Abdullah bin Hassan al-Nuaimi, and other senior officers on the Bahrain Defense Force Staff. General Kurilla’s decision to transit the Strait of Hormuz aboard a US Navy ship is the latest show of power in escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran regarding the free passage of commerce in the region.

Acting Under Secretary of Defense Baker Speaks with Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense. On August 8, Acting Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Sasha Baker spoke with the Saudi Deputy Minister of Defense Abdulrahman bin Ayyaf al-Muqrin, congratulating the latter on his recent appointment and reaffirming US commitment to “a strong defense partnership with Saudi Arabia.”

Department of Defense and Iraqi Ministry of Defense Hold Inaugural US-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue. On August 7 and 8, the US Department of Defense and the Iraqi Ministry of Defense held the inaugural US-Iraq Joint Security Cooperation Dialogue. During the dialogue, Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander and Iraqi Minister of Defense Thabit al-Abbasi led delegations and discussed bilateral defense issues, including the 2008 US-Iraq Strategic Framework Agreement, deepening security cooperation through training and intelligence sharing, and countering the so-called Islamic State as part of “shared interest in Iraq’s security and sovereignty, and in the stability of the region.” Minister al-Abbasi also met with Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and representatives from the Joint Staff, Defense Security Cooperation Agency, US Central Command, the State Department, and the National Security Council.

Secretary Austin Speaks with Djiboutian President Guelleh. On August 10, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Djiboutian President Ismail Omar Guelleh to “reaffirm the strength of the US-Djibouti defense partnership.” Secretary Austin also expressed his appreciation for the role that Djibouti played in evacuating American personnel from Sudan in April and discussed opportunities for the Department of Defense and Djibouti to strengthen their cooperation.

Navy Commander Hawkins Acknowledges Warning to Commercial Ships in Iranian Waters. On August 12, Navy Commander Timothy Hawkins, a spokesperson for the Mideast-based 5th fleet, acknowledged that the US-led International Maritime Security Construct had issued warnings to commercial ships traveling through the Strait of Hormuz. Though Commander Hawkins did not provide any specific details, commercial shippers were reportedly warned to stay as far away as possible from Iranian waters to avoid being seized.

4) Department of the Treasury

Department of the Treasury Will Not Extend Earthquake Relief Exemption for Syrian Sanctions. On August 8, the Department of the Treasury declined to renew Syria General License 23, a six-month authorization for US banks to process transactions related to Syrian earthquake relief. A spokesperson for the department commented that the license was a “time-limited authorization,” echoing a July 21 letter led by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) and HFAC Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia Chairman Joe Wilson (R-SC) that argued against renewing the general license.