Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Personnel and Correspondence

Bipartisan Congressional Letter to Biden Expresses Concern over Iran Nuclear Deal. On September 1, 50 members of Congress comprising 34 Democrats and 16 Republicans, all led by Representative Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) and Representative Andrew Garbarino (R-New York), wrote a letter to President Joe Biden expressing new concerns regarding the Iran nuclear deal. In the letter, the bipartisan group asked that the Biden administration provide Congress with a full text of the proposal to rejoin the agreement and consult Congress before reentering any such agreement with Iran. The letter raised concerns about sanctions relief for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), arguing that sanctions relief under the new agreement would provide Iran and the IRGC approximately $1 trillion over the next decade, making them “an enormous danger to Americans at home and abroad, and to our allies.” Additionally, the representatives expressed concern that Russia would become “the de facto judge of compliance” in the new agreement, and stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot be put in control of Iranian-enriched uranium.

New York Progressive Yuh-Line Niou Considers Third-Party Run. Progressive Democratic candidate Yuh-Line Niou is reportedly considering staying in the congressional race for New York’s 10th district, despite having most likely lost in the Democratic primary. Niou, who has faced heavy criticism from United Democracy Project (a super PAC and affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) over her support for the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, is projected to lose her primary against Dan Goldman by only 1,300 votes. Niou does not plan to concede the primary until the September 14 certification of the votes, but is now considering a third-party candidacy in the midterm election under the Working Families Party.

Maxwell Frost’s Primary Victory Criticized by Pro-Palestine Activist Groups. On August 23, candidate for the House of Representatives Maxwell Frost claimed victory in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 10th congressional district after defeating Florida State Senator Randolph Bracey. Frost, who would become the youngest member of Congress if elected in November, has garnered national attention for his progressive activism with organizations such as March for Our Lives and the American Civil Liberties Union, and has collected endorsements from Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), and Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont). But despite Frost’s history of activism, his comments on Israel and Palestine have drawn the ire of the Florida Palestine Network (FPN), which said that Frost has “chosen to be on the side of injustice” and “does not stand for human rights.” In recent statements, Frost has called for a two-state solution, has labeled the BDS movement “problematic,” and has supported the continuation of US military aid to Israel. The FPN alleges that Frost conveyed different views in a private online meeting with the group earlier this year, expressing support for BDS and against US military aid to Israel. In addition, an FPN representative said that Frost had pledged not to release any Middle East position papers without pre-approval from the organization, but then went ahead and published such a paper several weeks before the primary.

Israel’s Intelligence Chief to Visit Washington. According to senior Israeli officials, Mossad Chief David Barnea will visit Washington in early September to engage in “closed door meetings in Congress” to discuss nuclear negotiations with Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, a longtime opponent of the nuclear deal, has recently spoken of Israel’s “diplomatic fight” against the negotiations, and said that he hopes Americans and Europeans “understand the dangers involved in this agreement,” which he characterized as more dangerous than the original 2015 agreement that former US President Donald Trump pulled out of in 2018. Israel’s demands for a deal include an expiration date and a broader strategy to address Iran’s ballistic missile program and its activities across the Middle East.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Administration Says Iran’s Nuclear Deal Response “Not Constructive.” On September 2, Iran sent its written response to the most recent European Union proposal for a renewed nuclear deal, which is being met with negative responses from US officials. Spokesperson for the Iranian Foreign Ministry Nasser Kanaani stated that the Iranian text, “has a constructive approach with the aim of finalizing the negotiations.” However, Deputy Spokesperson for the US Department of State Vedant Patel said early Friday that Iran’s response was “not constructive.” Additionally, White House National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Iran’s new response closed some previous gaps, but that other important ones remain. Further details have not yet been provided by Biden administration officials.

State Department and White House Respond to Unrest in Iraq. On August 29, the US Embassy in Baghdad expressed concern about escalating tensions and violence in Iraq. The embassy reaffirmed the rights of protesters but emphasized that they must respect Iraqi government property and institutions. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the White House John Kirby called the unrest “disturbing,” but said that the US Embassy does not need to be evacuated at this time.

Israeli Security Experts Counsel Biden Against Iran Deal. On August 31, 5,000 members of Israel Defense and Security Forum, an organization of retired Israeli military officers and security officials, wrote a letter to President Biden urging him not to sign any new nuclear agreement with Iran. In the letter, the signatories argued that the deal would be “catastrophic for American, Israeli and regional security,” because it creates a legal pathway for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons by 2031, promotes a nuclear arms race between Iran and states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and unfreezes funds that could be used to “export terror and instability throughout the region and beyond.” Instead of a deal, the letter recommends that Biden move forward with a “credible military threat in combination with crippling economic sanctions.”

Biden Administration Warns Palestinian Authority Against Seeking UN Membership. On August 30, senior officials in the Biden administration told representatives of the Palestinian Authority (PA) that they should not ask the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to hold a vote on the question of whether or not to make Palestine a full member state of the United Nations. Palestinian Ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour reportedly began talks with members of the UNSC in New York a few weeks ago regarding the possibility of Palestine moving from the observer status that it has held in the UN since 2012 to one of full membership, but Biden administration officials have threatened to veto the matter. Commenting on the issue, a senior State Department official stated that only direct negotiations with Israel would lead to a peaceful solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

Biden Administration Says Russia is Facing Problems with Iran-made Drones. Biden administration officials have recently disclosed to the press that Russia has been experiencing technical problems with Iranian-made drones that were sent on August 19. Russia obtained the drones for use in its war on Ukraine, but has been experiencing “numerous failures,” despite a training program that sends Russian operators to Iran.

White House Calls Israel-Lebanon Maritime Border Dispute “Key Priority.” On August 31, a White House official said that finding a solution to the maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel is a top priority, stating that, “We firmly believe a deal has the potential to promote lasting stability and economic prosperity for both countries.” President Biden has relied on Special Presidential Coordinator Amos Hochstein’s work over the past several months to resolve the dispute, which hinges on a 330 square mile area off the coast of the two countries that is believed to contain gas reserves. Tensions between Israel and Lebanon have recently increased, with Hezbollah threatening war if Lebanon does not achieve its demands.

President Biden Speaks with Israeli Prime Minister. On August 31, President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid about global and regional security concerns, including “threats posed by Iran.” Biden reaffirmed that the United States will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, and also emphasized the importance of finding a solution to the Israeli-Lebanese maritime border dispute.

President Biden Speaks with Iraqi Prime Minister. On August 31, President Biden spoke with Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi about escalating tensions and recent violence in Baghdad. Biden commended al-Kadhimi’s leadership and praised the performance of Iraqi Security Forces. Finally, Biden expressed his condolences to the families of those killed in the fighting, urging a national dialogue that embraces a “common way forward.”

US Press Club Honors Shireen Abu Akleh. On August 31, the US National Press Club posthumously awarded its President’s Award to Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was shot and killed by Israeli forces while reporting in the occupied West Bank in May 2022. US National Press Club President Jen Judson used the ceremony to push for accountability in Washington, saying, “Another reason why it’s so important to award this to Shireen this year, it’s just that it continues to keep the conversation going and continues to raise awareness for her.” Abu Akleh’s niece Lina Abu Akleh, who accepted the award on her aunt’s behalf, stated, “We have expected from the US president to take the case seriously as in similar cases. But we will never relent. We will bring justice for Shireen.”

2) Department of State

Israeli Defense Forces Release Official Probe on the Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh. On September 5, the Israeli Army released its official probe into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot and killed on May 11, 2022, despite wearing protective equipment clearly identifying her as a member of the press. According to the official probe, it is “highly probable” that an Israeli soldier killed Abu Akleh, mistaking her for an armed Palestinian. However, the report also notes that Israeli officials cannot rule out the possibility that Abu Akleh was the victim of Palestinian gunfire. The Israeli Military Advocate General’s Office, meanwhile, announced that it will not be investigating soldiers who were involved in the incident.

The probe has led to mixed responses from the US government. On September 5, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that the department welcomes Israel’s probe into the incident, stating that the United States prioritizes the reduction of civilian harm in military operations. Both this response and the probe itself were met with heavy criticism from other US government officials and from the Abu Akleh family. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) replied to the probe via a tweet on September 5, arguing that the report comes in stark contrast to investigations from numerous news organizations, and from the United Nations. Van Hollen wrote that the probe, “underscores [the] need for [an] independent US inquiry into this American journalist’s death.” The Abu Akleh family responded by stating that Israel refuses to take responsibility for the killing, and by calling on Congress and the Biden administration to follow through with meaningful action.

US Embassy in Riyadh Trying to Help American Mother and Daughter. On August 25, the US Embassy in Riyadh reportedly contacted an American woman who is “trapped” in Saudi Arabia with her daughter. Carly Morris, an American woman, traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2019 with her ex-husband, who is Saudi, and their daughter Tala to meet her ex-husband’s family. Once there, Morris’ ex-husband took their identity and travel documents, in effect trapping them in the country. Although a recent court judgment allowed Morris to regain her passport and granted her sole custody of her daughter, Saudi guardianship laws still prevent her daughter Tala from leaving the country without her father’s permission. The US Embassy is now in the process of trying to retrieve Tala’s original travel documents, which include her American passport and birth certificate.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Meets with Tunisian President. On August 30, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf met with Tunisian President Kais Saied and other top Tunisian officials in Carthage. Leaf emphasized the importance of Tunisia’s commitment to democracy and human rights, the two country’s military partnership, and collaborative counterterrorism efforts, while Saied reportedly pushed back against US interference in Tunisia’s domestic affairs. During the visit, Leaf aimed to ease tensions that arose after recent comments from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, nominee for US Ambassador to Tunisia Joey Hood, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III, which were seen as critical of the Saied administration.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Speaks with Libyan Officials. On August 31, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf met with Governor of the Central Bank of Libya Saddek Elkaber. In their meeting, Leaf reaffirmed US support for the bank’s efforts to strengthen transparency in the financial sector to ensure public funds are used equitably for all Libyans. She also spoke with Libyan Presidential Council President Mohamed al-Menfi about recent violence in Tripoli. The two agreed that “a peaceful dialogue toward a constitutional basis for elections must happen to prevent further instability and conflict.”

Assistant Secretary Leaf Travels to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara A. Leaf traveled to Israel and the occupied West Bank from September 1 to 3, meeting with Israeli and Palestinian officials to discuss US commitment to Israel’s security, the goal of increasing cooperation between the United States, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority, and efforts to improve the quality of life of Palestinians. On September 3, Secretary Leaf traveled to Amman, where she met with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi. The two discussed the bilateral relationship between the United States and Jordan, shared efforts to promote regional stability, and spoke about a new seven-year, $10.15 billion bilateral memorandum of understanding between the two countries, which was announced following a meeting between President Biden and Jordan’s King Abdullah II in July.

State Department Releases Joint Statement Calling for an End to Syrian Crisis. On August 31, following a meeting in Geneva with members of the Arab League, the European Union, and the broader international community, the State Department released a joint statement expressing support for a political solution in Syria, including a sustained ceasefire, free and fair elections, an end to arbitrary detentions, and the resumption of meetings of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The statement also noted the threat still posed by the so-called Islamic State and emphasized signatories’ commitment to “the fight against terrorism in all its forms and manifestations.” The signatories also underscored the humanitarian crisis in Syria and expressed their aim to extend the UNSC Resolution 2642 cross-border aid mechanism, which provides for lifesaving humanitarian aid through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing at the Syrian-Turkish border.

Ambassador Norland Calls for Ceasefire in Libya. On August 27, US Ambassador and Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland released a statement calling for an immediate ceasefire in Libya and for UN-backed peace talks. He also urged Libyan leaders to help bridge the gap between the House of Representatives and the High State Council and to hold constitutional elections. Thirty-two people were killed in clashes in Tripoli on August 27 when forces aligned with the government of Fathi Bashaga, which is based in the eastern city of Tobruk, attempted to overtake the city.

US Envoy to Yemen Condemns Houthi Attack in Taiz. On August 31, US Special Envoy to Yemen Tim Lenderking condemned an August 29 Houthi attack in Taiz, Yemen, which resulted in the deaths of 10 Yemeni soldiers. According to the Yemeni government, the attack aimed to cut off a key route to the city. Lenderking stated that, “This attack exacerbates Taiz’s humanitarian crisis and undermines the UN truce, which has brought live-saving relief to Yemenis.”

Erbil Consul General Meets with Kurdistan Regional Government Natural Resources Minister. On August 30, US Consul General in Erbil Irvan Hicks Jr. met with Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Energy and Natural Resources Minister Kamal Mohammed Salih to discuss the Kurdistan Region’s energy sector. Following the meeting, the consulate in Erbil said that the KRG and the Iraqi government should resolve their differences over oil exports and that “existing oil contracts must be respected.” This effort at mediation follows an Iraqi Federal Supreme Court ruling in February 2022 that deemed the KRG’s independent oil and gas exports unconstitutional. The US Consulate’s reference to the necessity of “respecting” oil contracts refers to the Iraqi government’s attempts to pressure American oil companies to cease operations in the Kurdistan Region earlier this year. Oil firms operating in the Kurdistan Region have reportedly asked the United States to defuse tensions between Iraqi central authorities and the KRG. The companies stated that intervention was important to ensure oil flows through northern Iraq to Turkey, which would prevent Turkey from relying on Iran or Russia for oil shipments.

3) US Agency for International Development

US Increases Humanitarian Aid to Sudan. On August 29, in response to deadly flooding in Sudan, the US Agency for International Development announced that it will provide an additional $100,000 to aid with disaster recovery efforts. These funds will help the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies to provide food, shelter, and healthcare to those affected by the flooding.

4) Department of Defense

US to Supply Israel with 4 Refueling Planes. On September 1, the US Department of Defense signed a contract with Boeing to supply Israel with four KC-46 refueling planes. The planes provide for the mid-air refueling of fighter jets, which would allow Israel to conduct airstrikes in areas of Iran that would normally remain outside of Israeli fighter jets’ flight range. The purchase comes with a price tag of $927 million, but the money will come from the $3.8 billion the US sends to Israel each year as part of a 10-year memorandum of understanding between the two countries. The earliest the planes will arrive in Israel is 2025.

US Approves $141 Million Military Sale to Morocco. On August 25, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) notified Congress of a potential $141.1 million military sale to the government of Morocco. The sale will include radio support, cryptographic devices, navigation equipment, software support, training and spare parts, and other logistical support services. Contracting services will primarily come from Raytheon, General Atomic Aeronautical Systems, and Lockheed Martin. According to the DSCA, the sale will support US foreign policy and national security by aiding a major non-NATO ally in the region. Over 90 percent of Morocco’s arms imports come from the United States, and the Moroccan military is poised to benefit from the provisions in the new US State and Foreign Operations bill that increase military collaboration with signatories of the Abraham Accords.

US Navy Foils Iranian Vessel Capture. On August 30, the US Navy released a statement claiming that it had foiled an attempt by Iran’s IRGC to capture the unmanned USS Thunderbolt vessel in the Arabian Gulf. After sightings of Iran towing the vessel, the Navy’s 5th Fleet dispatched a combat helicopter, the presence of which led to the tow line being disconnected and to Iranian forces vacating the area several hours later. Commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command Vice Admiral Brad Cooper, called the attempt “flagrant, unwarranted and inconsistent with the behavior of a professional maritime force.”

Iran Briefly Seizes Two US Sea Drones. On September 2, Iran’s navy seized two American sea drones in the Red Sea, but released them following inspection. Iranian state TV reportedly announced that, “After two warnings to an American destroyer to prevent possible incidents, [the Iranian Navy] seized the two vessels,” before releasing them “in a safe area.” Two American destroyers responded to the incident, the second to occur between the US Navy and Iranian forces this week.

US and UAE Officials Discuss Defense Issues. On August 26, a UAE military delegation led by Commander of the UAE’s Naval Forces Rear Admiral Pilot Saeed bin Hamdan Al Nahyan met with Vice Admiral Brad Cooper to discuss defense coordination and furthering US-UAE ties. The meeting came shortly after the Pentagon authorized a military sale to the UAE consisting of THAAD missile rounds, launch control stations, and tactical operations stations.

5) US Committee on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Reports on Religious Freedom Reforms in Egypt’s Educational System. On August 25, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom released a report titled “Assessing Religious Freedom in Egyptian Curriculum Reform.” The report explores the Egyptian government’s progress throughout the 2021–2022 academic year in reforming the country’s primary and secondary school curriculums to make them more religiously inclusive. The report found slight improvements in religious sectarian rhetoric, but otherwise found that Sunni Islam is promoted and is characterized more positively than minority religions such as Christianity, Baha’ism, Shia Islam, and Judaism. The USCIRF has previously recommended that the State Department place Egypt on a watchlist for severe violations of religious freedom.