Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation 

House Democrats Introduce Bill to Combat Global Religious Discrimination. On October 21st, Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois) introduced the Combating International Islamophobia Act (H.R.5665). The bill mandates that the State Department create a special envoy to monitor Islamophobic violence and that the United States develop a strategy to combat these human rights violations. In a statement released by Rep. Omar, she explains that this bill is a reaction to global violence against Muslims, including discrimination against specific sects within Muslim-majority countries such as Bahrain and Iran.

Senate Commemorates Operation Provide Comfort. On October 21st, Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) introduced a resolution commemorating the 30th anniversary of Operation Provide Comfort and US-Iraqi Kurdistan cooperation. Operation Provide Comfort was a 1991 military operation through which American troops helped Kurds in Iraq resettle after fleeing an attack by Saddam Hussein’s regime. A statement released by Senator Van Hollen emphasized the importance of the relationship between the United States and Iraqi Kurds who stand united in opposition to “extremism and terrorism.”

LaHood Introduces Resolution on Lebanon. Also on October 21st, the House Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa and Global Counterterrorism took up H.Res.569, which was referred to the body on July 28, 2021 by Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois). The resolution expresses “continued solidarity with the Lebanese people after the devastating explosions at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, and the continued efforts to form a secure, independent, and democratic Lebanon.”

2) Nominations

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Pushes Ahead with Nominations. In an attempt to push back against “Republican obstructionism,” the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to confirm 33 critical nominations to the US State Department, US Agency for International Development, and other vital organizations. Committee Chairman Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) released a statement denouncing continued gridlock from Republican colleagues. Among the nominees are Jeffry Lane Flake as ambassador to the Republic of Turkey; Thomas R. Nides as ambassador to the State of Israel; and Steven C. Bondy as ambassador to the Kingdom of Bahrain. The nominations will now move forward for consideration by the full Senate.

Cruz Holds up Leaf’s Nomination. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) held up the nomination process of Barbara Leaf, a National Security Council official and President Joe Biden’s choice to be the Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East. According to Politico, Cruz was dissatisfied with Leaf’s answers during her nomination hearing. Fellow Senate Foreign Relations Committee member Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) called Cruz’s action “political grandstanding.”

3) Personnel and Correspondence

House Republican Speaks on Iranian Nuclear Proliferation. On October 18th, the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s ranking member, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), spoke about national security issues during a panel at the Milken Institute’s global conference. McCaul discussed nuclear proliferation in Iran and the potential threat to US national security. He also mentioned his hopes that the Abraham Accords would pressure Iran to resume nuclear talks with the United States and its allies.  

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Last Month in Riyadh, NSA Sullivan Discussed Normalization with Israel. A report by Barak Ravid for Axios revealed that National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in fact discussed Saudi normalization with Israel with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS) during the former’s visit to Neom, a coastal city on Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea, on September 27th. The report mentions that MbS did not reject the idea but said that other steps must be taken before normalization could take place.

Finer Visits Mauritania. Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer traveled to Mauritania where he met with high level officials, including President Mohamed Ould Ghazouani and Foreign Minister Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmad. Finer praised Mauritania’s role in combatting terrorism and called for more efforts to address human rights violations and COVID-19. Finer’s visit to Mauritania was the last stop of a trip to Africa that also took him to Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea.

2) State Department

Blinken Talks with UN Envoy to Yemen. On October 19th, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke on the phone with UN Envoy to Yemen Hans Grundberg and welcomed cooperation on finding a solution to the conflict in Yemen. The United States has its own envoy to the country, Timothy Lenderking, but so far his mission has not succeeded at bridging the differences between the different local and regional warring parties.

Advisor Hochstein Travels to Lebanon. US Senior Advisor for Global Energy Security Amos Hochstein traveled  to Lebanon on October 19th in an effort to help that country deal with its energy crisis. He is also expected to help restart talks between Lebanon and Israel on demarcating their maritime borders.

Malley Discusses Iran Nuclear Talks in Riyadh. US Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley met on October 20th with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud to discuss negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.

Lempert Travels to Tunisia and Libya. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert traveled to Tunisia and Libya on October 19-21. In Tunisia, she met with high level officials, including Foreign Minister Othman Jerandi, as well as civil society actors. While approving of President Kais Saied’s installation of a new cabinet, she emphasized US expectations of a return to constitutional order in that country. Reuters reported that Jerandi was keen to inform Lempert that Saied will take additional steps to safeguard the country’s democratic principles. In Tripoli, Lempert and Special Envoy and Ambassador to Libya Richard Norland participated in the October 21st Libya Stabilization Conference and met with officials, including Prime Minister Abdul-Hamid Dbeibah.

Joint Committee for Jerusalem Consulate. Although President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett that he will reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, Axios reported this week that the United States and Israel are planning to form a joint committee to discuss the issue. The consulate has been the official venue for US-Palestinian relations for decades. The announcement practically means that the United States will allow Israel to formally veto an American sovereign foreign policy decision related to the much-vaunted US role in finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. It is noteworthy that no Palestinian leaders are included as part of the joint committee.

Kerry to Talk Climate in Riyadh. John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, plans to travel to Saudi Arabia on October 24-25 to participate in the Middle East Green Initiative Summit in Riyadh. He will meet with his Saudi counterparts and representatives of the public sector to discuss the climate crisis. Kerry travels to the kingdom as global oil prices witness a sharp increase, which entices producers to pump more crude. Relatedly, Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed Al-Jadaan spoke in an interview about Saudi Arabia’s desire for what he called a “balance” between climate change and energy security, laying the blame on European countries’ focus on renewables as precipitating higher oil prices.

US Gives Emergency COVID-19 Assistance to West Bank and Gaza. Amid concerns of rising coronavirus infections in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the United States Agency for International Development is providing $5 million in emergency aid to the Palestinian Authority. This is in addition to a $25 million tranche of assistance earlier in the year.

 3) Defense Department

US al-Tanf Base in Syria Attacked. On October 20th, US troops stationed at al-Tanf base on the Syrian-Iraqi border came under attack by drones and indirect fire from unknown sources. No casualties were reported. Two hundred soldiers man the base that at times was used to train Syrian opposition forces.