Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Senator Ernst Introduces Bill to Prevent Waiver of Sanctions on Iran. On October 4, Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) introduced S.3028. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would prevent the waiver of certain US sanctions on Iran until it “ceases to attempt to assassinate United States officials, other United States citizens, and Iranian nationals residing in the United States.” On October 9, following the introduction of the bill (and in response to the recent attack Hamas attack on Israel), Senator Mitch McConnell penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for new “extensive multilateral sanctions” against Iran for its support of Hamas.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Cardin Reverses Menendez-Era Policy, Blocks Military Aid to Egypt. On October 3, Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, announced that he will block foreign military financing to Egypt until its government takes “meaningful steps to improve human rights conditions in the country.” Senator Cardin specifically requested progress on Egyptian pre-trial detention practices, the pardon and release of political prisoners, and the creation of civil society space for human rights defenders, political opposition, and independent media in the country.

Senator Murphy Leads Letter to President Biden About Israel–Saudi Arabia Normalization. On October 4, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) led a letter with 19 of his fellow senators to President Joe Biden regarding US-backed efforts to facilitate the normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The letter covers several issues, including reports that Saudi Arabia is requesting a security guarantee from the United States as part of any normalization agreement. In the letter, the senators argue there would need to be a high degree of proof “that a binding defense treaty with Saudi Arabia—an authoritarian regime which regularly undermines US interests in the region, has a deeply concerning human rights record, and has pursued an aggressive and reckless foreign policy agenda—aligns with US interests.” The senators also outlined their hesitance to have the United States support the Saudi government’s ambition to develop a civilian nuclear program, as has been reported. The senators concluded the letter with a request that President Biden seek commitments from Israel that it will not annex any or all of the West Bank, halt settlement construction and expansion, dismantle illegal outposts, allow the natural growth of Palestinian towns and cities, and grant Palestinians the ability to travel without interference between contiguous Palestinian areas.

HFAC and SFRC Leaders Condemn Hamas Attack, Reaffirm Support for Israel’s Security.  On October 7, House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) Ranking Member Gregory Meeks (D-NY) and Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX) released a joint statement in which they “strongly and unequivocally condemn Hamas’ heinous attack on Israel.” Meeks and McCaul expressed their support for Israel’s security and wrote that they “stand ready to ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself.” Also on October 7, Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID) and Chairman Ben Cardin (D-MD) of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) released statements. Risch expressed his “unwavering support” for Israel and alleged that the Biden administration’s recent release of $6 billion of Iranian funds encouraged Hamas’s attack. Cardin similarly condemned Hamas and announced his intention to introduce legislation that will “provide Israel with the tools it needs to defend itself,” also urging consideration for supplemental funding for Israel’s defense.

Representatives Bush and Tlaib Draw Criticism from Colleagues. Representatives Cori Bush (D-MO) and Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) are facing criticism for their comments in the wake of Hamas’ October 7 attack. Representative Bush mourned the loss of life from this weekend’s escalation in violence but criticized the US government’s support of Israel’s military occupation and apartheid. Tlaib offered a similar statement, writing that the Israeli government must end the occupation and dismantle the apartheid system. The representatives’ statements have drawn significant backlash from their colleagues, nearly all of whom have published statements in support of Israel.

Senator Tuberville Says He Will Not Lift Block on US Military Nominees Despite Hamas Attack and US Military Posture Change. This weekend, Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) stated that he will continue to block military leadership appointments despite this weekend’s developments in Gaza and Israel. For months, Tuberville has put a hold on at least 300 military nominations out of protest over a Pentagon policy that facilitates abortions for service members and their dependents. President Biden has previously criticized Tuberville’s protest, arguing that the holds undermine US military readiness.

Congressional Delegation Meets with Jordanian King. On October 9, a congressional delegation led by Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) met with Jordan’s King Abdullah. During the meeting, the delegation and King Abdullah discussed developments in the region and avenues for strengthening the strategic partnership between the United States and Jordan.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Expresses Support for Israel’s Security. On October 7, President Joe Biden condemned Hamas’s attack on Israel and communicated that US support for Israel’s security is “rock solid and unwavering” in a call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On October 9, President Biden joined European leaders in a joint statement on the Hamas attack. The leaders wrote that “the terrorist actions of Hamas have no justification, no legitimacy, and must be universally condemned,” adding that they will ensure that Israel is able to defend itself in pursuit of a “peaceful and integrated Middle East region.”

President Biden Thanks Qatari Emir for Mediation in Iran Prisoner Deal. On October 3, President Biden thanked the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, for his role in mediating the release of US citizens detained in Iran. President Biden and Al Thani also discussed ways to support and strengthen the US-Qatari bilateral relationship.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Meets with Israeli Opposition Leader. On October 4, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Benny Gantz, leader of the opposition National Unity party in Israel and former chief of the Israel Defense Forces, to discuss bilateral and regional issues. The visit comes after opposition leader Yair Lapid met with Biden administration officials and senators in September to discuss normalization with Saudi Arabia.

2) State Department

State Department Condemns Hamas Attack. On October 7, Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement in condemnation of Hamas’s recent attack on Israel. Following the statement, Secretary Blinken released two statements on X (formerly Twitter), where he called for a cease-fire and urged Israel to exercise restraint in its response to the attacks. Blinken deleted both tweets, replacing the cease-fire language with “Israel has the right to defend itself, rescue any hostages and protect its citizens.” In the wake of the attack, Blinken has spoken with officials from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority, calling on the leaders to condemn Hamas’s attacks. Blinken also spoke with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, reiterating US support for Israel’s security.

State Department Urges Israel and Palestinian Authority to Refrain from Exacerbating Tensions. In an October 2 press briefing, State Department Spokesperson Mathew Miller addressed recent developments in Saudi-Israeli normalization and progress towards a two-state solution in Palestine/Israel. Miller stated that “it is critical…for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.” Miller acknowledged that such steps include “the practices of forced demolitions and evictions of families from homes in which they have lived for generations.”

State Department Addresses Attack at Turkish Interior Ministry and Turkish Operations in Northern Syria. On October 2, the State Department condemned a recent attack at the Turkish Interior Ministry in Ankara. Spokesperson Mathew Miller stated that the United States “stand[s] firmly with our NATO Ally Türkiye and the Turkish people in the fight against the PKK, which has been designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the United States.” Miller called on Turkey to pursue joint counterterrorism cooperation with Iraq, where the PKK is active, in a way that “supports and respects Iraqi sovereignty.” On October 4, Miller discussed recent military escalation in northern Syria, particularly the State Department’s concern with the impact of violence on civilian populations. In the wake of the attack at the Turkish Ministry, Turkish officials declared that all Kurdish militant facilities in Syria and Iraq are valid targets. Shortly thereafter, reports emerged of a Turkish airstrike that killed eight in a Kurdish-held area.

State Department Observes Iraq’s National Day. On October 3, Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed Iraq’s National Day. Secretary Blinken congratulated Iraqis and highlighted the importance of the US-Iraq strategic partnership to address challenges posed by climate change, economic development, human rights, and the so-called Islamic State.

State Department Reaffirms Commitment to Preventing Nuclear Iran. Last week, the State Department reaffirmed its commitment to ensuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon. In an October 2 press briefing, Spokesperson Mathew Miller restated the United States’ preference for a diplomatic approach to constrain Iran’s nuclear program. On October 3, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel delivered a similar message, adding that “the use of Iranian military equipment, whatever it may be…poses a risk of it continuing to play a bigger role in the already existing malign and destabilizing activities that the Iranian regime already partakes in.”

Secretary Blinken Approves $75 Million in Food Assistance for UNRWA. On October 3, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) thanked Secretary of State Antony Blinken for providing $75 million in food assistance to the program. Secretary Blinken’s decision to approve the assistance comes after a monthslong hold from Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ranking Member Jim Risch (R-ID), who issued the hold due to what he alleged is UNRWA’s history of “employing people connected to terrorist movements like Hamas, promoting anti-Semitic material in its textbooks, and allowing Hamas to use its schools to store weapons.”

US Embassy in Tunisia Announces Humanitarian Aid for Migrants. On October 3, the US Embassy in Tunisia, in collaboration with the UN International Organization for Migration (IOM), announced $4.45 million in new humanitarian aid to help vulnerable migrants in Tunisia and to “support the Government of Tunisia’s efforts in providing relief to migrants and asylum seekers.” One million dollars of the aid will provide direct life-saving assistance, emergency shelter, and emergency health care to migrants in Tunisia, and the remaining $3.45 million will be given to the IOM to promote “equitable access” to justice and to support reforms in Tunisian immigration law.

State Department Addresses Military Financing Package to Egypt. On October 3 and 4, Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel held separate press briefings in which he provided updates on foreign military financing to Egypt. Patel told reporters that the State Department is consulting with Congress and the Egyptian Government on a package that advances “our shared vision for a secure and prosperous region, while ensuring that tangible progress on human rights continues to be made in Egypt.” Patel later stated that the State Department will engage closely with the Egyptian Government and with Congress to examine how the funds will be used, clarifying that the State Department believes that it is in the US national security interest to waive certain conditions related to the Fiscal Year 2022 Foreign Military Financing assistance for Egypt.

Special Envoy for Libya Discusses US Response to Flooding. On October 5, Special Envoy for Libya Ambassador Richard Norland discussed the US response to flooding in Libya, including over $12 million in humanitarian aid and engagement with Libyan military and political leadership in Tripoli and Benghazi. Ambassador Norland also emphasized the importance of further progress in the UN-facilitated political process, briefly mentioning the “renewed debate and focus on electoral laws and the formation of an agreed caretaker government that would lead the country to elections” in the wake of reconstruction.

3) Department of Defense

Secretary Austin Outlines Support for Israel’s Security. Over the weekend, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with his Israeli counterpart, Yoav Gallant, following Hamas’s attack on Israel. Secretary Austin reiterated US support to Israel’s security and announced that the United States will send multiple military ships and aircraft closer to Israel as a show of support, in addition to providing fresh supplies to Israel’s air defenses and munitions.

US Transfers Seized Iranian Ammunition to Ukrainian Forces. On October 2, the United States transferred 1.1 million rounds of seized Iranian ammunition to Ukrainian armed forces. The rounds were initially seized by CENTCOM naval forces in December 2022 and put into US ownership in July 2023. CENTCOM and White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre justified the seizure under UN Security Council Resolution 2216, which places an arms embargo on Yemen for UN member states such as Iran.

State Department Approves $70 Million Weapons Sale to Oman. On October 3, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the State Department has approved a possible sale worth $70 million in missiles and support equipment to Oman.

US Shoots Down Turkish UAV in Syria. On October 5, the United States shot down a drone in Syria belonging to Turkey. According to Pentagon Press Secretary Pat Ryder, US forces observed Turkish drones conducting airstrikes in a declared US restricted operating zone near Hasakah, Syria. US commanders determined that one drone, which was less than half a kilometer from US forces, was a potential threat and decided to shoot it down with an F-16 fighter. In the aftermath of the incident, Ryder told reporters that Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Turkish Minister of National Defense Yasar Guler to discuss Turkish activity in proximity to US forces in Syria. Secretary Austin stressed the “importance of maintaining strict adherence to de-confliction protocols and communication through established military-to-military channels.” The recently sworn-in chairman of the joint chiefs of staff General CQ Brown Jr. provided a similar message in a call with his counterpart, Turkish Armed Forces General Metin Gurak.