Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

 Republicans Target Biden Administration over Foreign Policy Decisions. The fallout from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has been fierce and partisan. Although it is largely symbolic and has no effect on US policy in the Middle East, it is noteworthy that House Republicans filed resolutions to impeach Secretary of State Antony Blinken (H. Res. 608) and censure and condemn President Joe Biden (H. Con. Res. 49). They also called for the president’s immediate resignation (H. Res. 612), and demanded that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III (H. Res. 611) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley (H. Res. 610) also resign from their positions.

National Defense Authorization Act. On September 1, the House Armed Services Committee held a marathon markup session that resulted in nearly unanimous support for a fiscal year 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, one that allows the Pentagon to spend nearly $25 billion more than the Biden Administration requested. With the amendments, the legislation authorizes the Pentagon to spend $778 billion, including $500 million allocated for missile defense support to Israel and prohibitions against US military resources being used to transfer anything of value to Iran (this is reference to the oft-wielded attack that President Barack Obama gave Iran “pallets of cash” on military cargo planes). The bill also requires reports about Iranian-Chinese cooperation and Tehran’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria. It maintains provisions authorizing the Pentagon to spend money to support US-backed groups in Syria, fight the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and engage in military-to-military activities with Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

 Senators Murphy, Ossoff, Blumenthal, and Van Hollen Travel to the Levant, North Africa. Democratic Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut traveled to the Middle East alongside their Democratic colleagues Jon Ossoff (Georgia) and Chris Van Hollen (Maryland). The four visited Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank as part of their delegation. Sens. Murphy and Ossoff then traveled to Tunisia for the first congressional delegation visit to the country since the constitutional crisis began in Tunis.

HFAC Leaders Urge Return of Citizens Detained in Iran. House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas) sent a letter to President Biden asking him to prioritize the return of US citizens currently detained in Iran. In addition to the safe return of US citizens, the pair called for a “full account” of the whereabouts and fate of Robert Levinson, who is presumed dead after spending years in captivity in Iran.

 II. Executive Branch

 1) White House

 President Biden, Vice President Harris, Other Officials Speak with Gulf State Partners. Once again, President Biden and top administration officials were in close contact with officials from Gulf Arab states regarding the evacuation efforts stemming from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. President Biden spoke with Kuwaiti Emir Nawaf Al-Ahmad Al-Jaber Al Sabah, and Vice President Kamala Harris spoke with Bahraini Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa and Kuwaiti Crown Prince Mishal Al-Ahmad Al-Jabir Al Sabah.

Secretary of State Blinken and Secretary of Defense Austin also held talks with leaders from Gulf Arab states on the same topic. Blinken met with the foreign ministers of Qatar and Bahrain and Austin spoke with his counterparts from Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, Deputy Supreme Commander of the United Arab Emirates Armed Forces.

2) Department of State

 Secretary Blinken Speaks with Saudi Foreign Minister. In addition to his calls with regional partners regarding Afghanistan, Secretary Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud about Saudi Arabia’s defense posture after a recent Houthi attack.

Former Ambassador to Israel Joins State Department’s Iran Team. Axios reported that former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro is now a senior advisor at the State Department, supporting the Iran team. This is likely a sign that the Biden Administration predicts that discussions about a mutual return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are doomed. Due to his stint as ambassador and his time living in Israel as a private citizen, Shapiro is viewed as a key interlocutor between the US and Israeli governments, one who would be leaned on heavily for coordinating an Iran strategy should JCPOA negotiations collapse for good.

3) Department of Defense

 Israel Officially Moves within Area of Responsibility of CENTCOM. US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees US troops in most of the Middle East, took responsibility for US forces in Israel. This comes months after the Department of Defense announced the realignment and, according to its press release, CENTCOM is partly looking to use this change as a way to promote cooperation between the Israel Defense Forces and Arab militaries.

4) Department of the Treasury

 Romanian, US Companies Penalized for Violations of Iran, Syria Sanctions. The Treasury Department announced that it settled with Romanian and US banks for a sum of $860,000 for violating the sanctions regimes targeting Iran and Syria. The entities were said to have facilitated the flow of dollars and euros to individuals and others residing in both Iran and Syria, despite a US ban on such activity.

5) US Commission on International Religious Freedom

 Deteriorating Religious Freedom Conditions in Algeria. On August 31, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) held a webinar exploring the state of religious freedom in Algeria. It has been a country of special concern for the commission for the last few years due to the government’s promotion or tolerance of religious discrimination. The panelists recounted the ways that the Algerian government limits religious freedom, including through its enforcement of blasphemy laws and its limitations on non-Sunni Muslim groups’ abilities to practice their faith openly. The expert witnesses offered recommendations to US government officials about actions needed to guarantee religious freedom in Algeria.

Daniel Hoffman of Middle East Concern urged US government officials to pressure the Algerian government to abide by its commitments under international human rights law and to relax its prohibition on non-Muslim groups’ abilities to gather and worship as they choose. On Algerian Christians in particular, Hoffman urged the United States to push Algiers to open churches it has forced to close and to cease persecution of Christians in the country. For his part, witness Asif Arif asked USCIRF to focus on how the 2020 constitutional reforms in Algeria might be used to persecute religious minorities.