Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

House Passes CAPTAGON Act. On September 20, the US House of Representatives passed H.R. 6265, the Countering Assad’s Proliferation Trafficking and Garnering of Narcotics (CAPTAGON) Act. If passed by the Senate and signed by the president, the bill would require the Department of Defense, the Department of State, the Department of the Treasury, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, and other federal agencies to report to Congress on a strategy to dismantle production and trafficking of the amphetamine Captagon—which has become popular among youth in the Gulf—that is linked to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The bill was introduced by Representative French Hill (R-Arkansas) in December 2021.

House Passes Resolution Urging EU to Designate Hezbollah Terrorist Organization. On September 20, the US House of Representatives passed H.Res. 558, a resolution that “expresses support for the continued, increased cooperation between the United States and the European Union in thwarting Hizballah’s [sic] criminal and terrorist activities,” and that “urges the European Union to designate Hizballah [sic] in its entirety as a terrorist organization.” The resolution was introduced by Representative Ted Deutch (D-Florida), Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism.

Lawmakers Introduce PUNISH Act to Maintain Iran Sanctions. On September 21, Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, joined Senator Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Representative Mike Waltz (R-Florida) in sponsoring a new bill, H.R. 8947, the Preventing Underhanded and Nefarious Iranian Supported Homicides (PUNISH) Act, which would codify the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign into US law. The bill, if passed, would prevent the Biden administration from lifting sanctions on the Iranian regime—despite a potential return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—until the State Department is able to certify that the Iranian regime has not targeted any senior US officials for assassination for a period of five years.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Republican Senators Express Their Concerns to IAEA Director General. On September 16, Senators Jim Risch (R-Idaho), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Ranking Member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, and Marco Rubio (R-Florida), Vice Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a letter to Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Rafael Grossi. In the letter, the senators express their concerns over Iran’s recent demand to end IAEA investigations into its nuclear program as part of a renewed nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries.

Representative Burchett Criticizes Greg Norman’s LIV Golf Series in Saudi Arabia. On September 21, Representative Tim Burchett (R-Tennessee) criticized his fellow representatives who met with Australian golfer Greg Norman, who was in Washington to build support for the LIV Series golf tour in Saudi Arabia. Representative Burchett called Norman’s pitch “propaganda,” saying of Saudi leadership, “We need to get out of bed with these people. They are bad actors. We need to keep them at arm’s length.” This Republican criticism follows Democratic Senator Dick Durbin’s (D-Illinois) comments earlier this month, when he tweeted that the new golf tour was using a golf glove to “try and cover a blood-stained hand,” namely that of the Saudi government.

Senator Risch Comments on Mahsa Amini’s Death. On September 21, Senator Jim Risch (R- Idaho), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, commented on the September 16 death of Iranian citizen Mahsa Amini in Iranian police custody, stating, “Mahsa Amini’s murder is a horrifying reminder of what Iran’s regime believes and the Iranian people know it.” In his tweet, Senator Risch said that the United States would only empower the regime by continuing to engage in nuclear talks, urging the Biden administration to stop negotiations.

Representative Wilson Urges US Treasury Involvement in Iranian Protests. On September 22, Representative Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism, urged Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen to work with providers to restore internet access in Iran to help Iranians protesting the death of Mahsa Amini. The Iranian government has reportedly shut off internet access in Tehran and parts of Kurdistan, blocking protesters’ access to social media sites like Instagram and WhatsApp.

Representative Tlaib Criticized by Democratic Colleagues for Israel Comments. Democratic members of the House of Representatives criticized Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) for her comments at an Americans for Justice in Palestine Action event, where she stated, “Among progressives it has become clear that you cannot claim to hold progressive values yet back Israel’s apartheid government, and we will continue to push back and not accept this idea that you are progressive except for Philistine any longer.” Pro-Israel House Democrats, including Representatives Jerry Nadler (D-New York), Ted Deutch (D-Florida), and Debbie Wasserman Shultz (D-Florida) criticized Representative Tlaib for her comments. The representatives argued that progressive democratic values can be pro-Israel.

Representative McCollum Comments on New Shireen Abu Akleh Investigation. On September 22, Representative Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota) commented on a new investigation into the death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Forensic Architecture and Al Haq. The new investigation provides evidence that Israeli soldiers deliberately fired at Abu Akleh despite her wearing a press vest at the time, and then shot at a Palestinian civilian who attempted to provide Abu Akleh with medical attention. Representative McCollum stated that that this new forensic evidence is “further grounds for the US State Department to demand accountability for the murder of an American citizen.”

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Hosts Hearing on Security Cooperation in the Middle East. On September 21, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism held a hearing titled “Examining the US Interest in Regional Security Cooperation in the Middle East and North Africa: Opportunities, Obstacles, and Objectives.” The hearing was chaired by Representative Ted Deutch (D-Florida), and witness testimony included former US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Andrew Exum, and other speakers from relevant think-tanks.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Criticizes Iranian Protest Response in UNGA Speech. On September 21, during a speech at the UN General Assembly, President Biden criticized the Iranian government’s response to protests over the death of Mahsa Amini, a Iranian Kurdish woman who was arrested and beaten by the country’s “morality police” in Tehran for violating dress codes. Biden also reaffirmed US support for Iranian protesters, stating that the United States stands with “the brave citizens and brave women of Iran, who right now are demonstrating to secure their basic rights.” In addition, the president reaffirmed the United States’ commitment to preventing Iran from ever acquiring a nuclear weapon.

President Biden Reaffirms Support for Two-State Solution. On September 21, during his address at the UN General Assembly, President Biden stated that his administration will “continue to advocate” for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. He cited a two-state solution as the best way to secure Israel’s security and prosperity while also granting the Palestinians a state “to which they are entitled.” Biden also highlighted that both the Israelis and the Palestinians must be able to enjoy “equal measures of freedom and dignity.”

Iranian President Says He Will Not Meet with President Biden. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi told reporters that he does not plan to meet with President Biden while they are both in New York City for the UN General Assembly meeting. Raisi told reporters, “I don’t think that such a meeting would happen. I don’t believe having a meeting or a talk with him will be beneficial.” Indirect nuclear negotiations between the two nations have stalled, with a Biden administration official recently calling Iran’s offer “not constructive.”

National Security Adviser Sullivan Thanks Turkey for Help in Ukraine War. On September 21, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan thanked the Turkish government for its help in facilitating the exchange of prisoners between Ukraine and Russia.

Biden Administration Announces New Ambassador to the UAE. On September 19, the Biden administration announced it has submitted the nomination of Martina Anna Tkadlec Strong, a career foreign service officer, to the US Senate for the position of Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. Strong currently serves as the interim chargé d’affaires at the US Embassy in Saudi Arabia.

Biden Appoints Diplomat to Manage Guantanamo Prisoner Transfers. On September 19, the Biden administration appointed senior diplomat Tina Kaidanow to oversee the transfer of detainees out of the Guantanamo Bay military detention center in Cuba. The facility was established in 2002 in order to house alleged terrorists captured overseas, and has caused controversy ever since. Many detainees have alleged that they were unlawfully arrested and detained, denied due process, and subjected to abuse at the facility.

2) Department of State

State Department Announces Sanctions on Iran’s Morality Police Over Mahsa Amini Death. On September 22, the US State Department announced sanctions on Iran’s Guidance Patrol, commonly known as the “morality police,” and on senior Iranian security officials who have engaged in “serious human rights abuses.” The sanctions build on US condemnation of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, who died after the Guidance Patrol arrested her for wearing her hijab too loosely. According to the statement, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control has sanctioned two senior Guidance Patrol officials, along with other Iranian officials involved in the violent suppression of protests following Amini’s death.

State Department Official Says Iran’s Position Unchanged in Nuclear Talks. On September 22, outside of the UN General Assembly meeting, a senior State Department official told reporters that Iran’s position in ongoing nuclear talks remains unchanged. The official stated, “There’s been nothing this week that has indicated they are prepared to change. What we’ve seen is a doubling down on their position.”

State Department Welcomes Turkey-Israel Meeting. On September 21, the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs welcomed a recent meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid at the UN General Assembly meeting. This was the first meeting between the top Turkish and Israeli officials in 14 years, which the State Department welcomed as “an important step in strengthening ties” between the two countries.

US, France, and Saudi Arabia Show Support for Lebanon Ahead of Elections. On September 21, the United States joined France and Saudi Arabia in expressing support for Lebanon’s sovereignty, security, and stability. In a joint statement, the three countries stressed the importance of constitutional compliance in the country’s upcoming presidential elections, stating, “It is critical to elect a president who can unite the Lebanese people and work with regional and international actors to overcome the current crisis.” The joint statement encouraged any new government to implement structural and economic reforms needed to reach a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund.

US Co-Hosts Funding Event for FSO Safer Oil Vessel. On September 22, the State Department announced that the United States had co-hosted an event with Germany and the Netherlands at the UN General Assembly to raise funds to drain and replace the FSO Safer, an oil storage vessel moored off the coast of Yemen without inspection or maintenance since 2015. The parties reached a donation milestone of $75 million, which is required to begin the first phase of a FSO Safer emergency operation. Aside from the host countries themselves, the largest donors were Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom, with $10 million and $7.5 million, respectively.

Secretary Blinken Thanks Saudis for Help in Ukraine-Russia Prisoner Exchange. On September 21, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken thanked Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan for his country’s help in facilitating a prisoner exchange between Ukraine and Russia. Russia returned ten prisoners, two of whom were US citizens. Secretary Blinken’s statement related that the two Americans have arrived safely at the US Embassy in Riyadh.

US Yemen Envoy Encourages Saudi Arabia to Engage with Iran. US Special Envoy to Yemen Timothy Lenderking reportedly said that the United States is encouraging Saudi Arabia to communicate with Iran. In an interview given during the UN General Assembly this week, Ambassador Lenderking stated “[The] Saudis are very keen to benefit from Iran for Yemen and for their security from those conversations, so we encourage Saudi Arabia to keep those channels open.”

Secretary Blinken Meets with Egyptian Foreign Minister Shoukry. On September 19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the UN General Assembly in New York to speak about the United States and Egypt’s strategic partnership. Blinken thanked Shoukry for Egypt’s efforts at encouraging regional stability, including “supporting equal measures of security and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.” The two officials also discussed the war in Ukraine, upcoming elections in Libya, and the UN truce in Yemen.

Secretary Blinken Meets Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council Chair al-Alimi. On September 19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Yemeni Presidential Leadership Council (PLC) President Rashad al-Alimi in New York. During the two officials’ meeting, Blinken expressed his support for the PLC, and the two leaders discussed the importance of extending the current UN-backed truce in Yemen, which is set to expire on October 2. They also outlined several additional items they would like to see added to a renewed truce, including opening roads in Taiz, increasing commercial flights from Sanaa International Airport, and paying the salaries of teachers and civil servants.

Secretary Blinken Thanks Qatar for Assistance in Prisoner Exchange. On September 19, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the State Department was grateful to Qatar for its mediating role in a prisoner exchange between the United States and the Taliban for the release of US Navy veteran Mark Frerichs. Frerichs was released at Kabul airport earlier that day, in exchange for Bashir Noorzai, a Taliban-affiliated drug smuggler.

Assistant Secretary Leaf Meets with Qatari Foreign Minister at UNGA. On September 22, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf met with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani at the UN General Assembly. In a tweet highlighting the meeting, the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs highlighted the United States-Qatar relationship on issues like stabilizing the global energy supply, supporting the Afghan people, and working toward the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Doha later this year.

US Officials Denounce Iranian President Raisi’s Comments Questioning Holocaust. Several US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, condemned remarks made by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and broadcast on September 18, in which he gave an ambiguous statement calling for more research when asked if he believed the Holocaust occurred. Sullivan called Raisi’s statement “outrageous” and called for its universal condemnation, while Lipstadt labeled it “ludicrous and dangerous,” and labeled it as a form of antisemitism and Holocaust denial.

Blinken Meets with Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Mikati. On September 21, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Lebanese Caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati, stressing the importance of timely presidential elections and urging the Lebanese government to implement key reforms to promote good governance, to improve the Lebanese economy, and to restore the Lebanese people’s trust. Blinken also thanked Mikati for Lebanon’s role in hosting refugees and emphasized that refugee returns to Syria must be dignified, safe, and voluntary.

I2U2 Representatives Meet at UNGA. On September 20, US Under Secretary of State Jose Fernandez met with his I2U2 counterparts, Indian Minister of External Affairs Economic Relations Secretary Dammu Ravi, Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Director General Alon Ushpiz, and United Arab Emirates Minister of State Ahmed bin Ali Al Sayegh. The leaders discussed future economic partnerships and current projects in agriculture and clean energy. The I2U2 was established in July 2022 to foster collaboration between the US, India, Israel, and the UAE.

Secretary Blinken Congratulates Saudi Arabia on its National Day. On September 23, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken congratulated Saudi Arabia on its National Day. Secretary Blinken cited more than eight decades of cooperation between the kingdom and the United States, highlighting shared work on promoting regional security, reaching a durable peace in Yemen, and expanding technological cooperation.

Departments of State and the Treasury Meet to Discuss Restoring Internet in Iran. On September 23, senior officials from the State Department and the Treasury Department held a phone call to discuss the restoration of internet access to the people of Iran. During the meeting, it was announced that the Department of the Treasury has issued General License D-2, which provides updated guidance to authorize technology companies to offer internet service in Iran despite existing US sanctions.

US Joins Four European Nations in Joint Statement on Libya. On September 22, senior State Department officials met with officials from France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom at the UN General Assembly to discuss the current situation in Libya. The five countries expressed their support for Special Representative of the Secretary-General Abdoulaye Bathily, the UN official who is attempting to advance political reconciliation in Libya. The officials also discussed elections, transparent oil revenue management, and the importance of the October 23, 2020 ceasefire agreement.

US Joins UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE in Joint Statement on Yemen. On September 20, officials from the United States, the UK, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE met to discuss the current situation in Yemen. The group expressed its support for ending the conflict and the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and welcomed the “tangible benefits” that have resulted from the April 2, 2022 truce, including the flow of fuel into Hodeidah Port and the resumption of flights into and out of Sanaa airport. The group—which refers to itself as the Quad—stated that it will continue to meet regularly, and expressed its support for further efforts toward reaching an extended and expanded truce in Yemen.

3) Department of Defense

Department of Defense Renews MoU with Peshmerga. On September 21, Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander and Kurdistan Regional Government Minister of Peshmerga Affairs Shoresh Ismail Abdulla signed a renewed Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the US Department of Defense and the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs. The MoU, originally signed in 2016, demonstrates US cooperation with the Kurdistan Regional Government and its fight against the so-called Islamic State. The MoU also focuses on reforms and professionalization within the Ministry of Peshmerga Affairs.

Air Force Conducts Military Exercise in Qatar. The US Air Force recently concluded a multi-week Employment Concept Exercise at Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. One hundred airmen and four KC-46A Pegasus aircraft participated in the drill. During the exercise, forces tested the capabilities of aircraft in extreme desert climates.

4) Department of the Treasury

US Sanctions Iranian Cargo Planes Flying to Russia. On September 19, the US Department of Commerce announced that three Boeing 747 planes operated by Iranian airlines will be added to the export violation list, in accordance with US sanctions on Iran. The planes, operated by Mahan Air, Qeshm Fars Air, and Iran Air were allegedly used to transport electronic items to Russia. Sanctions relief has been a point of focus in current nuclear deal negotiations with Tehran.

US and Iran Engage in Legal Battle Over $2 Billion Asset Seizure. On September 19, hearings in the International Court of Justice began over $1.75 billion in bonds, and accumulated interest, owned by the Iranian government but held at Citibank in the United States. Washington has attempted to seize these bonds as compensation for the 1983 bombing of a US military base in Lebanon that killed 241 US troops and 58 French soldiers. Iran denies any involvement in the bombing and alleges that this asset forfeiture is both a violation of international law and an attempt to “destabilize” the Iranian government.

5) US Agency for International Development

USAID Provides Additional $151 Million in Aid to Somalia. On September 21, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will provide an additional $151 million in humanitarian aid to Somalia, the vast majority of which will go to food assistance as the country battles a severe drought. The announcement follows a Famine Review Committee projection that famine will likely occur in the Buur Hakaba and Baidoa districts in southern Somalia without further aid. This assistance will be implemented by the World Food Program, which will provide two and a half months’ worth of cash and vouchers for Somalis to purchase food from local markets, aiming to provide for 3.6 million people in total.

6) US Commission on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Condemns Iran’s Religious Police for Killing of Mahsa Amini. On September 21, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom condemned Iran’s “morality police” for the recent killing of Mahsa Amini, who was detained for improperly wearing a hijab and beaten to death at a detention center. USCIRF Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum called Amini’s killing the “culmination” of the Iranian government’s repression of women on religious grounds and called on President Biden to condemn Iran for Amini’s killing. The 2022 USCIRF Annual Report recommended that the State Department designate Iran as a country of particular concern due to ongoing violations of religious freedom.

III. Judicial Branch

Former Trump Advisor Faces Trial over Ties to UAE. Thomas Barrack, a Los Angeles based private equity executive and a former advisor to the campaign of former President Donald Trump, is reportedly set to go to trial in a US District Court in Brooklyn. Federal prosecutors are accusing Barrack of unlawful lobbying on behalf of a foreign state, which prosecutors allege involved using his influence to further the interests of the UAE, while simultaneously soliciting money from Emirati rulers for investment funds to help Trump’s agenda.

US Court Orders Hezbollah to Pay Victims of Rocket Attacks. A federal court in Brooklyn has reportedly ordered Hezbollah to pay $111 million in damages to American plaintiffs claiming injury from rocket attacks during the Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. The plaintiffs sued under the US Anti-Terrorism Act. A lawyer for the plaintiffs claimed this as a legal victory, but civil lawsuits against groups like Hezbollah are difficult to enforce.