Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Passes Amendment on Shireen Abu Akleh Killing. On September 14, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed SEC. 716, an amendment introduced by Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), which will require the State Department to release the United States Security Coordinator’s report on the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian American journalist who was shot and killed by Israeli forces in May. The amendment, which is part of the Department of State Authorization Act that was passed on the same day, gives the Secretary of State fourteen days to submit both classified and unclassified reports from the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority regarding the shooting. On the passage of the amendment, Senator Van Hollen stated, “I will continue pressing for full accountability and transparency around the death of Shireen—anything less is unacceptable.”

Palestinian Education Act Enters Committee Markup. On September 14, the House Foreign Affairs Committee met for a markup of various measures, including the Peace and Tolerance in Palestinian Education Act (H.R. 2374). Representative Brad Sherman (D-California) introduced the bill in April 2021. If enacted, the bill would require the Secretary of State to submit annual reports that review the Palestinian Authority’s educational materials. The text of the bill expresses a concern that textbooks produced by the Palestinian Authority, which are often funded by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, might “incite hatred” or contain graphics “portraying violence against Israeli soldiers.” On September 15 the bill left committee and will now go to the House floor for a vote.

House Resolution on Iran Deal Enters Committee Markup. On September 14, the House Foreign Affairs Committee met for markup of H.Res. 1266, a formal request to President Biden to report to Congress on the Iran nuclear deal. The resolution, introduced by Representatives Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), would, if passed, request that the President submit any documents, memoranda, or communications relating to Iran’s nuclear program to the House of Representatives.

Democratic Senators Introduce Amendment on Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death. Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) reportedly introduced an amendment to the Congress spending bill to investigate whether the so-called “Leahy Law,” which prohibits US military assistance to foreign forces that violate human rights, applies to the Israeli Army’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. The Leahy Law, if applicable, would require the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor to investigate and potentially sanction the Israeli military unit that killed Abu Akleh. This amendment is separate from Senator Van Hollen’s amendment to the State Department Authorization Act, which the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed earlier this week.

Republican Senators Introduce Bill to Ban Iran’s President from the United States. On September 15, Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced the Strengthening Entry Visa Enforcement and Restrictions Act of 2022 to prevent Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi from obtaining a visa to enter the United States to attend the United Nations General Assembly this year. In their statement regarding the bill, the senators highlighted their allegations that Raisi has both engaged in and supported terrorist activity and has called for the assassination of US officials. The senators also criticized the Biden administration for failing to enforce existing statutes that would ban Raisi from entering the US based on State Department requirements.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Murphy Raises Case of Egyptian Political Prisoner on Senate Floor. On September 13, Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) spoke about the Egyptian government’s forced disappearance and torture of Egyptian activist Ahmed Amasha, calling on the Biden administration to withhold $300 million in aid to Egypt that is conditioned on the country’s approach to human rights. Amasha is a human rights defender, environmental activist, member of the Kefaya opposition movement, and former head of Egypt’s veterinarian syndicate. He was first forcibly disappeared in 2017 and placed in prison, where he faced torture and sexual assault. And in 2020, he was once again arrested and tortured. Murphy’s speech also quickly follows the deaths of three Egyptian political prisoners, Mohammed Zaki, Shabaan Fouad, and Hassan Abdullah Hassan, all of which occurred within a 48-hour period.

Democratic Representatives Pressure Biden Administration on Aid to Egypt. On September 13, seven House Democrats led by Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York), sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressing concern over the Biden administration’s aid to Egypt. In the letter, the legislators state that they are concerned about a $300 million tranche of US aid to Egypt that is conditioned on human rights, citing continued reports by the State Department and both international and Egyptian organizations documenting politically motivated imprisonment, torture, extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, and medical neglect. The letter also cites the plight of US legal permanent residents and family members of US citizens who are being held by the Egyptian government on political charges. The legislators call on the State Department to refrain from releasing the conditioned aid to Egypt on the grounds that it has not met the required conditions.

Representatives Meeks and McCaul Welcome Sudanese Draft Constitution Framework. On September 13, Representatives Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Michael McCaul (R-Texas), Chair and Ranking Member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, released a statement welcoming the Sudan Bar Association’s draft transitional constitution framework. In the statement, the representatives urged all stakeholders in Sudan to seriously consider the document and to take steps to “build consensus around a path forward that includes a wide range of civil society representatives.” The representatives also highlighted the arrival of US Ambassador to Sudan John Godfrey in Khartoum, and emphasized that cooperation between the United States and Sudan can only occur after a transition to a civilian-led government.

Democratic Representatives Pressure State Department on Syrian Refugee Admission. Four Democratic House Representatives, Tom Malinowski (D-New Jersey), James P. McGovern (D-Massachusetts), J. Luis Correa (D-California), and Ro Khanna (D-California) sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking the State Department to expedite its processing of Syrian refugee resettlement in the United States. The letter cites 29,000 Syrian refugees who are currently having their applications processed by the State Department, stating that only 3,795 Syrians have been granted refugee status in the 2022 fiscal year. The representatives also highlighted the need to speed up the process due to the political targeting of Syrian refugees in host states like Turkey and Lebanon, where “solving the Syrian problem” has become a form of political capital before elections.

Lawmakers Call on Iran to Release Political Prisoners Before Reaching Nuclear Deal. At a September 15 roundtable with the families of Americans detained by Iran, Representatives Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and French Hill (R-Arkansas) urged that Iran must release all American political prisoners before it be given any sanctions relief in a nuclear deal. Representative Deutch, also said that he communicated this stance directly to the Biden administration via a phone call.

Senator Rubio Urges Sanctions on Algeria for Russian Military Purchases. On September 14, Senator Marco Rubio (R-Florida) wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in which he called for sanctions against Algeria due to its purchases of military equipment from Russia. In the letter, Senator Rubio cited Section 231 of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which grants the president the power to invoke sanctions against actors engaged in significant financial transactions with the Russian Government. As the letter points out, Russia is Algeria’s largest military supplier, and Algeria finalized a $7 billion arms deal with Russia in late 2021.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Administration to Withhold Some Security Aid to Egypt. On September 14, it was reported that the Biden administration will withhold $130 million in security assistance to Egypt due to its human rights record. This decision follows recent pushes by the administration’s Democratic allies in Congress, including by US Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut). According to a senior official in the Biden administration, “The approach taken here reflects the administration’s concerns about human rights and fundamental freedoms in Egypt, while also seeking to preserve the engagement and dialogue that we have had over the last 20 months.” However, the administration will reportedly still release a separate payment of $75 million due to Cairo’s having taken steps to free political prisoners. Senator Murphy called this decision “disappointing” and argued that Egypt has not made enough progress to justify the release of these funds.

Biden and Erdoğan Discuss Potential Meeting. President Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are reportedly negotiating a meeting in late September to discuss the war in Ukraine, Turkey-Russia relations, and the Ukraine grain export deal. The two presidents previously met at a NATO summit in June, shortly after President Erdoğan dropped his veto on Sweden and Finland’s NATO membership. The US-Turkey relationship has recently been strained over Turkey’s military relationship with Russia, US support of Kurdish forces in Syria, and Turkish officials having recently accused the United States of purposely rejecting visa applications from Turkish citizens as part of a supposed political ploy against Erdoğan’s party ahead of Turkish elections. President Erdoğan also recently criticized western “provocations” against Russia relating to its war with Ukraine.

2) Department of State

Secretary Blinken Says Iranian Demands Make Nuclear Deal “Unlikely.” On September 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested that achieving a renewed nuclear deal with Iran is “unlikely” right now because Iran has taken “a step backward” in negotiations. Blinken’s remarks follow statements from Britain, France, and Germany expressing “serious doubts” about Iran’s goals. Speaking to reporters, Blinken said, “I can’t give you a timeline except to say, again, that Iran seems either unwilling or unable to do what is necessary to reach an agreement.”

State Department No Longer Pressing Israel on Rules of Engagement. On September 13, the Biden administration backtracked on its previous calls for Israel to reexamine its rules of engagement following the Israeli Army’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. This week, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said, “No one knows the IDF’s processes and procedures better than the IDF, and so it is not on [the United States] or any other country or entity to say precisely what the IDF or any military or security organization around the world should do.” Price also made clear that the United States is “not looking for criminal accountability” in the killing.

UN Ambassador Pledges Additional $756 Million in Humanitarian Assistance for Syria. On September 14, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield pledged an additional $756 million in humanitarian assistance to Syria, which comes on top of $800 million in aid that the United States announced at a conference in Brussels in May. According to Thomas-Greenfield, the aid will help humanitarian efforts to provide clean water, food, medication, relief supplies, protection services, and critical health and nutrition assistance to the people of Syria. She also reiterated US commitment to Syrian relief efforts and urged other countries to increase their humanitarian contributions, while also calling on the Assad regime and Russia to stop hindering a durable, Syrian-led peace process.

State Department Says Biden Administration Has Received Israeli Information on Palestinian NGOs. On September 13, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said that Israel has recently provided the Biden administration with intelligence aiming to justify its raids on seven Palestinian NGOS in August. Price stated that, “Our Israeli partners have in recent days provided us with additional information. They provided this information not only to the [State] Department but to a range of our interagency partners.”

US Embassy in Sudan Joins International Call for Democratic Transition. On September 12, the US Embassy in Sudan joined the embassies of eight other countries in urging Sudanese political parties to begin the process of restoring a civilian-led democratic transition. The statement highlighted the Sudanese Bar Association’s publication of a draft transitional constitutional framework document calling for a civilian-led government and popular elections. The statement’s signatories emphasized the need for all actors, including the Sudanese military, to engage in a political process leading to a civilian-led government.

State Department Says Palestinian Authority Failing at Fiscal Transparency. The State Department released its annual Fiscal Transparency Report on September 9, revealing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) is one of 69 governments failing to meet US standards on fiscal transparency due to its having made its enacted budget with incomplete data, and having failed to approve the budget via a legislative process. The State Department called on the PA to publish its executive budget proposal, complete enacted budget, end-of-year report, and audit reports in a timely manner.

US Ambassador to the UN Meets with Israeli Defense Minister. On September 12, US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The two discussed the Unites States’ commitment to Israel’s security. Following the meeting, Gantz thanked Thomas-Greenfield for her “unwavering support for Israel’s security.”

Religious Freedom Ambassador Travels to Turkey. From September 10 to 14, US Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom Rashad Hussain traveled to Ankara and Istanbul to meet with government officials, civil society groups, and religious leaders. In April, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2022 annual report recommended that the US government place Turkey on a watch list due to “severe violations” of religious freedom.

State Department Commemorates Abraham Accords Anniversary. On September 12, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs commemorated the passing of two years since the declaration of the Abraham Accords in 2020, writing that, “The Israeli-Emirati agreement has resulted in multiple daily flights between the two countries and cooperation on health, joint investment, energy and more.” As regards Bahrain’s participation in the accords, the bureau stated that the accords have helped citizens of both countries “reach their potential.” It also said that the agreement between Israel and Morocco “paved the way for cooperation in science, education, health, and travel requirements for tourism business.”

Special Envoy Malley Meets with Jewish Groups. US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley met with the leaders of several US Jewish and pro-Israel organizations, including Union for Reform Judaism, American Jewish Committee, Democratic Majority for Israel, and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Little information has been published regarding the agenda of the meetings.

US Embassy in Libya Commemorates Tenth Anniversary of Benghazi Attacks. On September 11, US Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland commemorated the tenth anniversary of the 2012 Benghazi attacks, in which former US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other US officials were killed by Islamist militants in the first attack to claim the life of an American ambassador since 1979.

Blinken Speaks with Albanian Prime Minister, Condemns Iranian Cyberattack. On September 12, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, condemning Iranian cyberattacks against Albania that took place on July 15 and September 9 and emphasizing the importance of NATO security cooperation.

US Announces New Funding for Jordan. On September 16, the State Department announced a new Memorandum of Understanding on Strategic Partnership between the United States and the Kingdom of Jordan. Under the new memorandum, the United States will provide $1.45 billion in assistance to Jordan annually between 2023 and 2029. According to the statement, the assistance will help Jordan to address economic development, refugee support, and water scarcity, while also increasing the long-term strength of the bilateral US-Jordan relationship. Secretary of State Antony Blinken further detailed the benefits of this new memorandum in a joint press conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

US Announces New Funding for UNRWA. On September 16, the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration announced $64 million in new funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), the organization responsible for providing assistance to Palestinian refugees. According to the statement, the funding “includes support to strengthen UNRWA’s internal oversight and management; promote human rights, conflict resolution, and tolerance in UNRWA schools; and implement UNRWA’s information technology for education strategy.”

Special Envoy Lenderking Returns from Gulf Trip. On September 14, Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking returned from a trip to Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Oman, where he met with regional leaders to discuss an expanded truce agreement in Yemen ahead of the current truce’s scheduled expiration date of October 2. Conditions on a potential truce expansion may include paying civil servants, increasing freedom of movement, moving fuel through Yemeni ports, and increasing the frequency of commercial flights out of Sanaa. Special Envoy Lenderking expressed his appreciation of the Yemeni Government’s recent efforts in averting a fuel crisis and called on the Houthis to cooperate with the UN and to support an expanded truce agreement.

US and Turkey Engage in Strategic Mechanism Dialogue. On September 15, the United States and Turkey held the third iteration of the US-Turkey Strategic Mechanism Dialogue in Washington, DC. During the meeting, which was chaired by US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Turkish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sedat Önal, the representatives examined the bilateral relationship between the United States and Turkey, reaffirmed mutual commitment to increasing cooperation in public health and food and energy security, and also discussed both the fight against terrorism and support for Ukrainian sovereignty.

US Encourages Independent Dialogue in Iraqi Government Formation Process. On September 14, US Deputy Assistant Secretary for Iran and Iraq Jennifer Gavito spoke to Al-Monitor regarding Iraq’s current political crisis due to Iraqi politician Muqtada al-Sadr’s supporters having temporarily occupied the Iraqi Parliament building in Baghdad, and the militia clashes that followed. Gavito said that “Iraqi leaders across the spectrum need to make sure that all voices are included as part of any political compromise,” and underscored the potential for conflict if any voices are excluded.

US Delegation Discusses Healthcare Initiatives with UAE Officials. On September 14, a US delegation to the United Arab Emirates met with officials of the UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention to discuss technological innovation and the potential for public health improvement in the UAE, as well as potential collaboration between the US and UAE health sectors.

3) Department of Defense

Operation Inherent Resolve Changes Command in Iraq. On September 8, the Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve hosted a change of command ceremony in Iraq, transferring power from US Army Major General John Brennan to US Army Major General Matthew McFarlane. Army officials speaking at the ceremony highlighted coalition success against the so-called Islamic State during Brennan’s tenure and reaffirmed US commitment to fighting extremism.

US to Establish Military Testing Facility in Saudi Arabia. On September 8, CENTCOM Spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn announced that the United States is in the conceptual phase of establishing a military testing facility in Saudi Arabia. The facility, referred to as the Red Sands Experimentation Center, will focus on threats from drones and will work to develop new technology for air and missile defense. This development follows President Biden’s approval in August of a $3.05 billion military sale to Saudi Arabia consisting of 300 Patriot missiles.

CENTCOM Commander Meets with Egyptian Defense Officials. General Michael “Erik” Kurilla, Commander of US Central Command, met with Egyptian Minister of Defense Mohamed Zaki and Chief of Staff of the Egyptian Armed Forces Osama Askar in Cairo. During the visit, the officials discussed mutual security concerns, improvements to border security, and counterterrorism efforts. They also discussed next year’s Bright Star military exercise, which is an annual US-Egypt exercise first begun in 1980. Kurilla also traveled to the Suez Canal to meet with the chair of the Suez Canal Authority and the Egyptian Army’s commander in the Suez.

US Participates in Multinational Naval Exercise Near Turkey. On September 11, NATO’s Allied Maritime Command began the Dynamic Mariner military exercise just off the coast of Turkey. The exercise includes surface ships, submarines, and patrol planes from the United States and many NATO countries, including Canada, Turkey, France, Germany, Greece, and Italy. The drill comes as NATO forces monitor Russian ship activity in the eastern Mediterranean. According to French Navy Vice Admiral Didier Piaton, the purpose of the exercise was to “deter aggression and defend the [NATO] alliance.”

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions IRGC-Affiliated Cyber Actors. On September 14, the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced sanctions on ten Iranian individuals and two entities, all of which are affiliated with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The sanctions are being imposed due to these actors’ roles in “conducting malicious cyber-acts, including ransomware activity.” According to the statement, these targets are known to exploit software vulnerabilities to carry out ransomware activities, and to engage in unauthorized computer access, data exfiltration, and other malicious activities.

5) Department of Homeland Security

DHS Seizes and Sells Residence of Couple Who Did Business with Syrian Electronics Company. On September 13, the Department of Homeland Security announced that it has completed a civil forfeiture action on the Boston-area residence of a couple, Anni Beurklian and Antoine Ajaka, who conducted business with Syria-based EKT Electronics without an export license. Beurklian and Ajaka, who ran a technological services company primarily serving clients in Lebanon and Syria, fled the US in early 2018 to escape prosecution for their ties to EKT. According to the US government, EKT engaged in the production of improvised explosive devices that were used against US and coalition forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Three-quarters of the amount that the government made from the sale of the couple’s home—nearly $650,000—will be donated to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.

6) Department of Justice

DOJ Charges Iranian Nationals for Ransomware Attacks. On September 14, the US Department of Justice announced charges against three Iranian citizens accused of staging ransomware attacks targeting critical infrastructure, local governments, and nonprofit organizations. The hackers, identified as Mansour Ahmadi, Ahmad Khatibi Aghda, and Amir Hossein Nickaein Ravari, reportedly committed the attacks from within Iran and were working for their own financial gain and not on behalf of the Iranian government. Their attacks entailed encrypting and stealing data from networks and threatening to publicly release it unless large ransom payments were provided.