Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Cruz Criticizes Biden Administration for Seeking Exemption on Aid to Palestine. On August 16, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) criticized the State Department for sending aid to Palestine in 2021 despite internal concern that it could unintentionally benefit Hamas and other militant groups. Senator Cruz accused President Biden of being “pathologically obsessed with undermining Israel” and knowingly pouring “hundreds of millions of American taxpayer dollars into areas controlled by Palestinian terrorists.” Senator Cruz previously urged the State Department to halt aid to Palestinians until it “accounts for statutory restrictions and remedies known deficiencies in the distribution of such assistance.”

Senator Blumenthal Sends Letter to Governor of Saudi Arabia’s PIF, Requests Testimony. On August 16, Chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations (PSI) Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) renewed his request for the Governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), Yasir al-Rumayyan, to testify in PSI hearings about the planned PGA Tour-LIV Golf merger. In a letter to al-Rumayyan, Senator Blumenthal rejected the notion that he could not testify before the PSI because of sovereign immunity and Saudi law, saying, “If [the PIF] wants to engage with the United States commercially, it must be subject to United States law and oversight.” Senator Blumenthal also sent letters to McKinsey & Company, Boston Consulting Group, Teneo, and M. Klein & Company for their reported role in advising Saudi Arabia on PIF investments.

Senator Blackburn Criticizes China-UAE Joint Military Exercise. On August 11, Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) expressed concerns about the UAE “cozying up” to China ahead of the two countries’ first-ever joint military drill. Emirati officials have downplayed the significance of the joint training maneuvers, noting that such exercises are a standard part of the UAE’s “efforts to strengthen international cooperation across various fields.”

Senator Ernst and Representative Stefanik Lead Bipartisan Group in Letter to President Biden on Suez Rajan Tanker. On August 16, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) and Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY) led a bipartisan and bicameral group in a letter to President Joe Biden requesting information about offloading oil from the Suez Rajan tanker—suspected to hold sanctioned Iranian oil—off the coast of Texas. In the letter, the lawmakers expressed concern regarding “allegations of threats and intimidation by Iran against US citizens and corporations that have prevented the transfer of oil from the Suez Rajan.” The lawmakers argued that the oil aboard the Suez Rajan has already been seized under US sanctions law and that the Biden administration must “make clear that Iran and designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations cannot prevent our government from carrying out legitimate law enforcement operations.” Reports surfaced on August 18 that the tanker had begun transferring the oil to a nearby ship, spurring Senator Ernst to laud the development and call on President Biden to “end his posture of appeasement” toward Iran.

GOP Senators Express Concern Over Release of Iranian Funds. On August 18, a group of 26 GOP senators penned a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen criticizing the decision to release $6 billion in frozen assets to Iran in exchange for the release of five American detainees. The senators claim that the decision is inconsistent with the United States’ established policy of “no concessions,” writing that the move “will reinforce an incredibly dangerous precedent and will enable the Iranian regime to increase its destabilizing activities across the Middle East.” The senators suggest that the decision constitutes an effort to bypass Congress, and that financially rewarding Iran’s “malign behavior is wholly unacceptable.” The senators also question how the State Department and the Department of the Treasury will ensure that the released funds will not be used to “support terrorist networks and weapons proliferation, or increase [Iran’s] nuclear enrichment activities.

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

US Special Envoy for Yemen Travels to the Gulf. On August 14, US Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking traveled to the Arabian Gulf to meet with Yemeni, Saudi, Emirati, Omani, and international officials. According to the State Department, Special Envoy Lenderking was set to discuss necessary steps to “secure a durable ceasefire and launch an inclusive, UN-mediated political process while ensuring continued efforts to ease the economic crisis and suffering of Yemenis.” During the visit, Lenderking was also scheduled to congratulate Yemeni, UN, and international partners for successfully offloading over 1.1 million barrels of oil from the FSO Safer supertanker, a two-year operation which concluded last week.

Departments of State, Labor, and Commerce Issue Business Advisory on South Sudan. On August 14, the Departments of State, Labor, and Commerce issued a business advisory for South Sudan. The advisory underscores potential risks to US businesses and to Americans conducting business with companies that have significant ties to South Sudan’s extended transitional government or that are controlled by family members of government officials. Citing the transitional government’s “failure to adhere to its own laws in the transparent management of its oil revenue,” as well as a lack of progress toward the 2018 Revitalized Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in the Republic of South Sudan, the US government warns that US business, individuals, other persons and their operations in South Sudan may be adversely impacted.

Egypt Resists US Pressure to Send Weapons to Ukraine. US officials have slowly revealed that Egypt is continuing to resist US pressure to supply artillery shells, antitank missiles, air-defense systems, and small arms to Ukraine. US officials have been requesting that Egypt supply weapons to Ukraine since March, when Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Cairo. Egypt had previously indicated that it would send weapons to Russia, but agreed not to following US requests.

State Department Approves Sale of US-Israeli Missile Systems to Finland, Germany. Earlier this month, the US State Department approved the export of the David’s Sling system, a missile defense system developed jointly by US-based Raytheon Technologies and Israel-based Rafael Advanced Systems. Finland will be the first purchaser of the system, in a deal worth nearly $346 million. On August 17, US officials approved the sale of the jointly-developed Arrow-3 missile defense system to Germany. At $3.5 billion, the agreement is Israel’s biggest-ever defense deal.

Secretary Blinken Responds to Leaks on Iranian Nuclear De-escalation. On August 15, Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded to reports that Iran had slowed down its uranium enrichment, saying that he could not confirm the reports but would welcome any steps from Iran to de-escalate its “growing nuclear threat.” Secretary Blinken also emphasized that “President Biden’s determination to assure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon remains rock solid,” and that the Biden administration is now focused on its recent agreement to repatriate Americans detained in Iran.

Spokesperson Patel Gives Press Briefing. On August 16, State Department Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel answered press questions about a range of issues, including US interest in Arab-Israeli normalization and Israel’s accession to the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), the issue of Kurdish opposition in Iraq and Iran, and a recent US-Iran prisoner exchange. Regarding the prisoner exchange, Spokesperson Patel reiterated comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken that the department does not consider Shahab Dalili, an American citizen who was excluded from the prisoner exchange deal with Iran, to be wrongfully detained. Spokesperson Patel also addressed reports that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia executed an American citizen convicted of murder and that Pakistani-Iranian trade deals were impacted by US sanctions, declining to provide updates or assessments on either issue.

Secretary Blinken Meets with Israel’s Strategic Affairs Minister. On August 17, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer. The officials discussed the United States’ “steadfast commitment to Israel’s security” and the importance of de-escalating tensions in the West Bank. The meeting followed an August 16 press briefing by Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel, where he restated US commitment to a “negotiated two-state solution between our Israeli partners and the Palestinians.” Secretary Blinken and the minister also discussed other regional issues, including challenges posed by Iran and its proxies in the Middle East.

State Department Calls for End to Fighting in South Darfur, Sudan. On August 17, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller released a statement following renewed fighting between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) in Nyala, South Darfur, and other areas in Sudan. The statement decries the indiscriminate shelling by the SAF and the RSF that has led to civilian casualties. Spokesperson Miller urged both sides to “comply with their obligations under international humanitarian law, including those regarding the protection of civilians,” adding that, “There is no acceptable military solution to this conflict.”

Secretary Blinken Speaks with Saudi Foreign Minister. On August 17, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to talk over bilateral and regional issues. During the meeting, Secretary Blinken thanked Saudi Arabia for its work to convene more than 40 countries earlier this month in Jeddah, where officials discussed principles of a lasting peace in Ukraine. The two officials also discussed the ongoing conflict in Sudan and a shared interest in resolving conflict in Yemen through a UN-mediated Yemeni-Yemeni peace process.

2) Department of Defense

Israel, United States Complete Two-Week Joint Navy Drill. On August 14, the Israeli and US navies concluded the Intrinsic Defender joint maritime exercise. Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, discussed the importance of US-Israeli defense cooperation, stating, “Israel is one of our most capable maritime partners and these exercises further underscore historic military cooperation achieved in recent years. Training, and operating together strengthens regional maritime security and stability.”

Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff to Visit Israel. On August 16, it was announced that General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit Israel this week amid US concern over Israel’s judicial overhaul. US officials have expressed worry that the current crisis could negatively impact Israel’s deterrence strategy, potentially inviting Iran or Hezbollah to seize the opportunity to conduct additional military operations in the region. General Milley is expected to meet with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, Chief of General Staff of the Israel Defense Forces Herzi Halevi, and other security officials.

Commander of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Holds Special Briefing. On August 16, Major General Mathew McFarlane addressed questions about the status of US military operations against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. Major General McFarlane emphasized the importance of bilateral security cooperation between US and Iraqi forces, and commended the Iraqi Security Forces for both making “tremendous strides in defeating [IS]” and for continuing to prevent its reemergence. McFarlane clarified that IS no longer controls any territory and has suffered significant casualties, citing that IS attacks are down 65 percent from 2022. Addressing recent IS activities in Syria, McFarlane reaffirmed US support for the Syrian Democratic Forces and clarified that IS remains the sole focus of the coalition military mission.

Pentagon Denies US Forces’ Role in Iraq-Syria Border Security. On August 17, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder denied that US forces fighting the so-called Islamic State (IS) play a role in maintaining Iraqi-Syrian border security, calling border security “the writ of the Iraqi government.” Brigadier General Ryder also reported no updates on US defense posture vis-à-vis the Iranian Navy or the mission to defeat IS in Syria.

DOD Officials Visit Horn of Africa to Discuss Regional Security Issues. On August 17, Dr. Mara Karlin, performing the duties of deputy under secretary for policy, and General Michael Langley met with President of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh “to reaffirm the strength of the US-Djibouti defense relationship.” In the meeting, Karlin and Langley thanked President Guelleh for hosting US forces for the last 20 years and talked about further opportunities for cooperation towards a “more secure and prosperous East Africa.” On August 18, Karlin ended her visit with a meeting with United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) and Combined Joint Task Force–Horn of Africa leadership to review regional security issues.

3) Department of the Treasury

Department of the Treasury Sanctions Lebanon-based Organization “Green Without Borders.” On August 16, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctioned Lebanon-based environmental organization Green Without Borders, asserting that it “has provided support to and cover for Hezbollah’s operations in southern Lebanon…while publicly operating under the guise of environmental activism.” Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson stated that, “The United States rejects Hezbollah’s cynical efforts to cloak its destabilizing terrorist activities with false environmentalism.” Reiterating this sentiment, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller criticized Green Without Borders’ work to “cover for Hezbollah’s terrorist activities,” accusing the organization of conducting weapons training, providing support for Hezbollah’s activities along the Blue Line in southern Lebanon, and impeding the movement of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon.

Department of the Treasury Sanctions Militias in Northern Syria. On August 17, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) placed sanctions on two Turkey-backed militias accused of committing human rights abuses in the Afrin region of northern Syria. The two groups, the Suleiman Shah Brigade and the Hamza Division, are accused of displacing Afrin’s Kurdish population and extorting, abducting, and abusing the local populace. OFAC also imposed sanctions on three individuals tied to the leadership structure of the groups. Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson described the sanctions as a demonstration of US “dedication to promoting accountability for perpetrators of human rights abuses.” Addressing the announcement, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller asserted that “the United States will continue our unwavering support to promote respect for the dignity and human rights of all Syrians,” adding that such sanctions are designed to not interfere with humanitarian aid or resilience programs.