Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senator Risch Introduces Bill to Prohibit Normalization with Assad. On September 27, Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Senator James Risch (R-ID) introduced S.2935, the “Assad Regime Anti-Normalization Act of 2023.” If passed and signed into law, the bill would prohibit any official action to recognize or normalize relations with any government of Syria that is led by Bashar al-Assad. The bill is the Senate companion bill for H.R.3202, which was introduced by Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) in the House of Representative in May.

Senators Ossoff, Young, Lankford, and Booker Introduce Bill to Fund Liaison Between Israel and Palestinian Authority. On September 28, Senators Jon Ossoff (D-GA), Todd Young (R-IN), James Lankford (R-OK), and Corey Booker (D-NJ) introduced the bipartisan “Middle East Security Coordination Act” (S.2956). The bill, if passed and signed into law, would authorize new funding for the United States Security Coordinator (USSC) for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The USSC is a joint, international, interagency office that serves as a liaison between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and as an intermediary for peace and security dialogue. The bill would strengthen congressional oversight over any future effort to reduce the USSC position, which was threatened last year, and would require the secretary of state and the USSC to produce a report for Congress about the coordinator’s work in the Middle East.

Representative Wilson Introduces Bill to Require Report on Sanctions. On September 28, Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced H.R.5826. The bill would require a report on sanctions under the Robert Levinson Hostage Recovery and Hostage-Taking Accountability Act, and follows Wilson’s vocal criticism of the Biden administration for its sanctions policy with Iran and its handling of a recent prisoner deal. Following the bill, Wilson, along with other members of the House, also introduced H.Res.739, which “disapproves of the Biden administration’s nonenforcement of mandatory statutory United States sanctions against Iran,” among other purposes.

House and Senate Pass Resolutions Commemorating 5th Anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s Murder. Last week, Representative Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced H.Res.753 and S.J.Res.46. The resolutions commemorate the fifth anniversary of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and call for accountability in the wake of his death, particularly for the Saudi government to “ensure appropriate accountability for all individuals responsible for the murder,” release “wrongfully detained” prisoners, lift travel bans and restrictions against political dissidents, and ensure the freedoms of Saudi citizens. Representative Connolly also introduced H.Res.5833 on September 29, which seeks to protect Saudi dissidents in the United States.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Representatives Rogers, Bergman, and McCaul Seek Answers About DOD Official’s Relationship with Iran. On September 26, Representatives Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jack Bergman (R-MI) wrote a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III seeking answers about a Department of Defense (DOD) official’s employment history and relationship with the government of Iran. The official, Ariane Tabatabai, previously worked at the State Department under Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, where she supported his Iran negotiating team and is alleged to have been a member of an Iranian-run influence campaign. Special Envoy Malley is currently under investigation for mishandling classified information and is on leave from the State Department. Both the representatives’ letter and a separate statement by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) ask for clarification as to why Tabatabai was allowed to obtain a security clearance and a senior position in the DOD despite her alleged involvement.

Bipartisan Letter Welcomes Continued Restriction on Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Drone Program. On September 26, Senators Jim Risch (R-ID), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bill Hagerty (R-TN) drafted a letter with a bipartisan group of 28 fellow senators to E3 countries (the United Kingdom, France, and Germany), applauding them for taking steps to uphold restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile and drone program and encouraging them to urge other European states to do the same. The lawmakers write that the restrictions on Iran’s import and export of missile and drone-related technology play a necessary role in maintaining security in the Middle East.

Senator Cardin Stalls on F-16 Sale to Turkey Amid Push for Sweden’s NATO Ascension. Serving as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) told reporters last week that there is no rush to lift a hold on a sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey that was previously placed by Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ). The news follows comments made earlier last week by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that Turkey would approve Sweden’s bid to join the NATO military alliance if the United States went ahead with a sale of F-16 fighter jets and related technology to his country. Senator Cardin told reporters that there are other issues in addition to Sweden’s NATO accession that must be discussed before the sale of the fighter jets can be approved.

Congress Moves to Block Release of Military Aid to Egypt. On September 29, House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) urged the Biden administration to pause a portion of the human rights-conditioned military aid for Egypt this year due to its failure to meet the criteria. On the September 30, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also reiterated his concern with human rights progress in Egypt, pledging to place a hold on the remaining $235 million in military aid under the current fiscal year.

Senator Dianne Feinstein Dies at Age 90. On September 28, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) passed away, leaving behind a complicated legacy in US foreign policy toward the Middle East. The senator played a notable role in exposing US detention and interrogation programs created after the September 11 terrorist attacks through the production of a 6,700-page classified report in 2012 that brought attention to the brutal tactics of US intelligence gathering. Senator Feinstein was also active in the restoration of humanitarian aid to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza during the Trump presidency. Yet amid such efforts, Feinstein also played an active role in legislating US military operations in the Middle East, supporting the Iraq War resolution in the vote on October 11, 2002 and the Obama administration’s drone strike policy upon becoming chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

3) Briefings and Hearings

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on Economic Aid to Palestinian Authority. On September 27, the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia held a hearing on economic aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA). Representative Joe Wilson (R-SC), chairman of the subcommittee, opened the hearing by condemning “the terrorism being financed by US taxpayers,” referring to the United States’ relationship with the PA. Representative Dean Phillips (D-MN) proceeded with comments about “the numerous challenges contributing to the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank” and called on the PA to take accountability for its governance, economic, and security crises amid the US push for a negotiated two state solution. The hearing covered a number of other topics, including Iran’s influence in Gaza and the West Bank, the PA Martyrs Fund, the Taylor Force Act, and US funding to UNRWA.

House Homeland Security Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Terrorism Threats in Africa. On September 27, the Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counterterrorism, Law Enforcement, and Intelligence held a hearing to examine terrorism threats in Africa and their implications on US homeland security. The hearing addressed the presence of al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, and affiliates of the so-called Islamic State in Africa, as well as ongoing humanitarian situations and their potential to lead to terrorist threats.

House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Authorized Use of Military Force. On September 28, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a full committee hearing entitled “Reclaiming Congress’s Article I Powers: Counterterrorism AUMF Reform.” The committee addressed authorizations for the use of military force (AUMFs), focusing on divisions regarding Congress’s role in determining whether the United States goes to war. Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) opened the hearing with comments calling for Congress to “stop [its] unhealthy ongoing deference to the executive branch.” McCaul stated that it is his preference to “repeal and replace all the AUMFs with a new, more limited authorization scope to the terror threats that we face today. It would not apply to foreign nations or armed forces.” Subsequent statements by members on the committee included concerns about ensuring flexibility to address new threats, definitional debates about “threats,” the imperative of congressional oversight, and the issue of “forever wars.” Regarding the latter, Representative Warren Davidson (R-OH) issued strong remarks decrying the use of AUMFs in the Middle East. Representative Davidson noted that, “In the past, AUMFs have led to large and enduring presence of boots on the ground, some would say occupation. In the Middle East, it has led to regime change wars against nation states and subsequent largely unproductive nation building efforts.”

II. Executive Branch

1) State Department

State Department Denies Iranian Foreign Minister Waiver to Travel to Washington. On September 25, the State Department revealed that it had denied Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s request to visit the Iranian consular section in Washington, DC. Though the United States is obliged to allow Iranian officials travel to New York for UN business, the United States does “not have an obligation to allow them to travel to Washington, DC,” said State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller. Spokesperson Miller cited Iran’s wrongful detention of US citizens and its state sponsorship of terrorism as reasons to deny the foreign minister’s request.

State Department States that Policy Towards Golan Heights Has Not Changed Under Biden Administration. On September 25, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller answered questions about US policy toward the Golan Heights, stating that the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan has not changed under President Joe Biden. Miller stated, “The Golan is very important to Israel’s security. And as long as Assad is in power in Syria and as long as Iran is present in Syria, there is a significant threat to Israel and control of the Golan remains real important to Israel’s security.”

State Department Commends Increased Engagement Between Saudi Arabia and Palestinian Authority Following Visit. On September 26, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller commended a visit to the West Bank by Saudi Arabia’s first ever ambassador to the Palestinian Authority. Miller called the first visit a “helpful step” toward normalization efforts between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

State Department and Department of Homeland Security Admit Israel into US Visa Waiver Program. On September 27, the Department of State and the Department of Homeland Security announced the designation of Israel into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), allowing visa-free travel between Israel and the United States. The designation comes after a month-long trial period that began in July to allow unrestricted access to Israel for Palestinian Americans living in the West Bank. Palestinian Americans living in Gaza, however, can only travel through the country if they are not deemed security threats, and Palestinian Americans from abroad are largely still blocked from traveling to Gaza. Commenting on the decision, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller asserted that “Palestinian Americans coming from Gaza have to go through different procedures because they’re coming from a place that’s controlled by a foreign terrorist organization.” Reporters pressed Miller on his comments, asking how creating a different procedure for those traveling to Gaza could meet the reciprocity requirement of the VWP. Miller reiterated that the State Department is “convinced that [Israel] has met the requirements to join the Visa Waiver Program,” but noted that monitoring programs will be in place to ensure its compliance. The US government now faces a federal lawsuit from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) for admitting Israel to the VWP despite what the ADC views as continued discrimination against Palestinian Americans.

Ambassador to the United Nations ‘Strongly Opposes’ Israeli Expansion in the West Bank. On September 27, Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the United Nations Security Council that the Biden administration strongly opposes the Israeli government’s expansion of West Bank settlements. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield also condemned the rise in violence by Israeli settlers against Palestinians, saying that, “Ongoing violence sets back the prospects for peace and is responsible for so much needless suffering.”

US Embassy in Syria and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Goldrich Express Support for Syrian Protests. On September 27, the US Embassy in Syria announced that Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ethan Goldrich had spoken with Druze spiritual leader Hekmat al-Hajari and reiterated US support for the peaceful protests in Syria’s Suweida Province. The US Embassy also called for a political solution to the Syria conflict in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254.

State Department Adds Egypt to List of Countries Using Child Soldiers. According to a report by Human Rights Watch, the State Department recently added Egypt to its list of countries using child soldiers. The decision comes after August reports from the Egyptian rights group Sinai Foundation for Human Rights that militias in North Sinai allied with the Egyptian military had recruited boys as young as 16 for logistical and combat operations.

State Department Official Meets with Omani Officials. Last week, Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel Benaim met with Omani officials to discuss the US-Oman Free Trade Agreement, an agreement aimed at creating opportunities for Americans and Omanis and strengthening the bilateral relationship between the nations.

Special Presidential Envoy for Climate Travels to UAE. Over the weekend, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry traveled to the United Arab Emirates “to advance US objectives on climate and clean energy.” During his travel, Secretary Kerry met with local leaders to “encourage greater ambition and action from the energy sector on the road to the 28th UN Climate Change Conference COP28.”

2) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Forces Capture Islamic State Officials. On September 23, CENTCOM forces captured Abu Halil al-Fad’ani, an operational and facilitation official for the so-called Islamic State, during a helicopter raid in northern Syria. On September 30, news also broke of the capturing of another senior member of IS, Mamdouh Ibrahim al-Haji.

Secretary Austin Meets with Officials in Djibouti and Somalia. On September 24, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III met with President of Djibouti Ismail Omar Guelleh and Djiboutian Minister of Defense Hassan Omar Mohamed Bourhan to discuss the US-Djibouti defense relationship and regional security issues, including Djibouti’s support for efforts to combat violent extremist organizations in Somalia. On September 26, Secretary Austin also discussed countering terrorist group al-Shabab with Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud.

US Navy and Air Force Conduct Joint Exercise in the Gulf of Oman. On September 23 and 24, the US Navy and Air Force conducted a joint Air Operation in Maritime Surface Warfare (AOMSW) exercise in the Gulf of Oman. The exercise included a live Surface Combat Air Patrol and joint firing drills against surface targets. This is the sixth iteration of the joint AOMSW this year.

Department of Defense Condemns Violence on Saudi-Yemeni Border. On September 27, the Department of Defense condemned a September 25 attack reportedly carried out by Houthi rebels on the Saudi-Yemeni border that killed two Bahraini servicemembers. Reacting to the news, Pentagon Press Secretary Brigadier General Pat Ryder offered his condolences and said, “Such unacceptable attacks threaten the longest period of calm since the war in Yemen began.” On September 28, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III similarly offered condolences to Bahraini Crown Prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa. The comments followed an earlier State Department briefing, where Spokesperson Mathew Miller also condemned the attack.

US Navy Condemns Iran for Reportedly Shining Laser at US Helicopter. The United States Navy has accused Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps of shining a laser at a US Marine Corps helicopter multiple times in international airspace in the Gulf. This latest development comes after talks within the DOD about deploying US Marines on commercial ships.

3) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Imposes New Sanctions Targeting Instability in Sudan. On September 28, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned two entities and one individual for their role in exacerbating instability in Sudan. They include Ali Karti, former minister of foreign affairs under the government of Omar al-Bashir, and two companies accused of serving as procurement channels for weapons, parts, and supplies for the Rapid Support Forces. On the same day, the State Department announced concurrent visa restrictions against Karti and the two companies.

Treasury Imposes New Sanctions Against Iran’s UAV Program. On September 27, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned five entities and two individuals based in Iran, China, Hong Kong, Turkey, and the UAE for their involvement in a transnational procurement network aiding Iran’s one-way attack unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) program. According to the announcement, the sanctioned entities and individuals have facilitated shipments and financial transactions in support of Iranian-made UAV’s, which have been used to support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The State Department also announced concurrent visa restrictions against the network, stating that it “is determined to take actions against those supporting Russia’s war machine, particularly the provision of weapons that target Ukraine’s people and civil infrastructure.”