Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

Representative Carson Introduces Justice for Shireen Act. On November 14, Representative André Carson (D-Indiana) introduced H.R. 9291, the Justice for Shireen Act. The bill, if passed and signed into law, would require the director of the FBI and the secretary of state, in consultation with the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense, to submit a report to Congress on the death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed in the occupied West Bank in May 2022. The report would require the naming of any individuals or entities involved in Abu Akleh’s death and an explanation of the role any US defense materials or services may have played in her killing. Representative Carson’s bill was cosponsored by 18 House Democrats.

Retired Marine Corps Generals Ask Senate Leadership to Amend Fairness for 9/11 Families Act. Seven retired four-star Marine Corps generals sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) asking them to amend H.R. 8987, the Fairness for 9/11 Families Act, to include compensation for victims of the 1983 bombing of US Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. The legislation, which passed the House in September, is set to deliver $2.7 billion in unused COVID-19 funds to the immediate family members of 9/11 victims.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Democratic Lawmakers Praise FBI Investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death. Democratic lawmakers have praised the news that the Federal Bureau of Investigation will hold an investigation into the death of Shireen Abu Akleh. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland), who earlier introduced SEC. 716, an amendment to the State Department Authorization Act requiring a US government report on the killing, called the investigation an “overdue but necessary and important step in the pursuit of justice and accountability.” And Representative Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan) called the investigation, “the first step towards real accountability.” Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), however, expressed his staunch opposition to the investigation, accusing the Biden administration of “siccing the FBI on their political opponents” and undermining Israel.

Senator Menendez Says Erdoğan Wants to Annex Northern Cyprus, Vows to Block F-16 Sale. On November 16, Senator Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan plans to annex Turkish-occupied areas of Northern Cyprus. Menendez, who has the power to block weapons sales through his position in the Senate, vowed to reject any US sales of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Erdoğan said that at the G20 summit earlier in the week, President Biden had assured him that the weapons sale would proceed.

Senator Collins to Oppose Attempts to Condition Aid to Israel. Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine), who is expected to become the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said that she will use her position to ensure that progressive Democrats do not condition US aid to Israel. Collins traveled to Israel to meet with senior officials in October, and said in a recent interview, “I will continue to push back against those like Senator [Bernie] Sanders and Senator [Elizabeth] Warren, and members of the Progressive Caucus in the House, who have proposed conditioning that essential aid.”

House Foreign Affairs Committee Democrats Release Statement on Two-Month Anniversary of Protests in Iran. On November 16, Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led by Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and MENA Subcommittee Chairman David Cicilline (D-Rhode Island), released a statement marking two months of protests in Iran, which were sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini. The representatives applauded the Biden administration for continuing to hold the Iranian government accountable through sanctions and for its work to provide internet access to protesters. The statement from House Democrats follows criticism from Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Jim Risch (R-Idaho), chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, respectively, who stated that the Biden administration could do more with sanctions. In an interview, Menendez said that the Biden administration’s sanctions “have not been robust enough,” a position that Risch also expressed.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Supports Immunity for MBS in Jamal Khashoggi Case. On November 17, the Biden administration expressed its position that Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) should be granted diplomatic immunity in a US civil court case over his role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The State Department called the decision “purely a legal determination,” and at the same time condemned the “heinous murder” of Khashoggi. MBS was appointed Saudi Arabia’s prime minister in September, thereby producing the grounds for granting him immunity. However, the Biden administration’s position on the matter is nonbinding, and the issue will ultimately be decided by a judge. Khashoggi’s former fiancée Hatice Cengiz, who is suing MBS in conjunction with the nonprofit organization Democracy for the Arab World Now, condemned the decision, saying, “Jamal died again today.”

Biden Administration Condemns Iranian Attack on Israeli-Owned Commercial Tanker. On November 16, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan condemned an Iranian drone attack on a commercial tanker off the coast of Oman, calling it “the latest in a pattern of such actions and broader destabilizing activities.” US CENTCOM Commander Michael “Erik” Kurilla echoed Sullivan’s position by also condemning the attack.

Biden Administration Asks Netanyahu Not to Give Defense Position to Right-Wing Leader. The Biden administration reportedly asked Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu not to appoint Bezalel Smotrich, the far-right leader of Israel’s Religious Zionism party, as Minister of Defense, a position Smotrich was reportedly seeking to attain. Netanyahu reportedly responded favorably, telling Smotrich that he cannot be given the job due to American concerns. The Religious Zionism party responded to the reports, stating “The party has a lot of respect and admiration for our US ally, but the Biden administration should also respect Israeli democracy and not interfere in the establishment of an elected government.”

Biden Administration Pressured Israel to Fund Strategic Aid to Ukraine. The Biden administration reportedly pressured Israel to finance the provision of millions of dollars of “strategic materials” to Ukraine following Russia’s invasion of the country. The administration originally wanted Israel to send anti-aircraft batteries to Ukraine, but following negotiations, the two parties settled on this funding instead.

President Biden Meets with Turkish President at G20 Summit. On November 15, President Biden met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan outside of the G20 summit. During their meeting, Biden expressed the United States’ condolences to Turkey regarding an attack in Istanbul that killed six people. Biden also thanked Erdoğan for Turkey’s help in renewing the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which will improve global food security amid Russia’s war in Ukraine.

National Security Advisor Sullivan Condemns Continued Protest Crackdowns in Iran. On November 14, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan released a statement expressing concern over human rights abuses in Iran related to nationwide protests, including recent reports that protesters will be sentenced to death. He called for justice for the victims of Iranian state authorities and said that the US will pursue accountability through sanctions and other means.

2) Department of State

Palestinian Prime Minister Urges Cancellation of US Embassy Plans in Jerusalem. On November 14, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh urged the United States to cancel its plans to build its new embassy in the area of Jerusalem known as “Camp Allenby,” saying that Israeli authorities “illegally confiscated” the land from Palestinian families in 1950. Shtayyeh’s statement follows similar ones from the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel (Adalah) back in July, when the organization argued that the embassy would be built on land that was seized in violation of international law protecting Palestinian private property ownership.

US and Omani Officials Discuss Opening Airspace to Israeli Flights. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Omani Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr Albusaidi to discuss opening Omani airspace to flights from Israeli airlines, despite Oman and Israel having never established formal diplomatic relations. Oman has several diplomatic and trade demands that it wants the United States to meet before it opens its airspace, including cultural and educational exchange, trade and investment deals, and green energy agreements between the US and Oman.

Secretary Blinken to Attend World Cup, Meet with Officials in Qatar. On November 14, a US official confirmed that Secretary of State Antony Blinken will be at the World Cup in Qatar to attend the US-Wales match in al-Rayyan on November 21. During his travel, Blinken will meet with Qatari officials as part of an ongoing strategic dialogue between the two countries.

State Department Condemns Iranian Attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan Region. On November 14, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price condemned Iranian missile and drone attacks in the autonomous Kurdistan Region in Iraq, calling on Iran to end its attacks on Iraqi territorial integrity and reaffirming US support for the governments in Baghdad and Erbil.

State Department Expresses Concern Over Violence in the West Bank. On November 15, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price expressed that the United States is “deeply concerned” about increased violence in the occupied West Bank. Price conveyed “profound condolences” to Israeli and Palestinian families and urged all parties to “take urgent action to prevent further loss of life.”

Assistant Secretary Leaf Travels to Bahrain. From November 16 to 20, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf traveled to Bahrain as part of the US delegation to the Manama Dialogue.

Ambassador Nides Visits Israeli Settlement in the West Bank. On November 18, US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides visited the Ariel settlement in the occupied West Bank to offer condolences to the family of Tamir Avihai, an Israeli killed in an attack in the settlement on November 15. In January 2022, Nides said that he would not visit Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law, due to the possibility of enflaming tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. This was his first visit to a settlement since assuming the ambassadorship in December 2021.

3) Department of Defense

CENTCOM Commander Visits Saudi Arabia. On November 17, US CENTCOM Commander General Michael “Erik” Kurilla visited Saudi Arabia, where he attended a military joint planning meeting hosted by Saudi Chief of General Staff General Fayyad bin Hamed al-Ruwaili. The joint meeting included senior military officials and covered opportunities to bolster US-Saudi military cooperation.

CENTCOM Commander Kurilla Visits Israeli Army. On November 15, US CENTCOM Commander Kurilla visited the Israeli Army. Along with Israeli Major General Ori Gordin, Kurilla visited the Blue Line between Israel and Lebanon and the Alpha Line between Israel and Syria to discuss Israeli border security measures and the threat posed by Hezbollah. Kurilla also visited Northern Command headquarters in Safed, where he received a threat briefing and explored ways to improve integrated air and missile defense systems.

US Navy Intercepts Vessel Carrying Explosives from Iran to Yemen. On November 15, CENTCOM announced that the US Navy’s 5th Fleet intercepted a vessel in the Gulf of Oman carrying more than 70 tons of ammonium perchlorate and other explosive materials. The ship was traveling from Iran to Yemen on a route commonly used to smuggle materials to Yemen’s Houthi forces. Iran’s supply or sale of weapons to the Houthis would violate international law and UN Security Council Resolution 2216. US Vice Admiral Brad Cooper condemned this lethal aid from Iran, saying that it is “irresponsible, dangerous and leads to violence and instability across the Middle East.”

Secretary Austin Speaks with Kuwaiti Defense Minister. On November 15, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with Kuwaiti Minister of Defense Abdullah Ali al-Salem al-Sabah to congratulate him on his recent appointment to the position. Austin reaffirmed the strength of the US-Kuwait defense partnership and expressed his thanks for Kuwait’s continuing to host US forces.

CENTCOM Commander Expresses Concern at al-Hol Camp in Syria. On November 20, CENTCOM Commander Kurilla expressed concern for conditions in the al-Hol displaced persons camp in northeast Syria. Kurilla said that the 25,000 children in the camp are “prime targets” for radicalization by the so-called Islamic State (IS). He also called for short-term improvement in the camp’s situation, and stressed the long-term need to repatriate, rehabilitate, and reintegrate the camp’s residents into their countries of origin.

Defense Secretary Austin Holds Call with Israeli Counterpart. On November 17, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III called outgoing Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to thank him for his cooperation over the past two years and to recount the successes of the US-Israel defense partnership throughout his tenure. Austin also expressed condolences for the victims of recent attacks in Israel. The same day, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl led a delegation to Israel to attend the annual Defense Policy Advisory Group. The group discussed the US-Israel defense partnership and explored ways to counter Iranian influence and to ensure that Israel retains a qualitative military edge.

Department of Defense Casts Doubt on Iran’s Hypersonic Missile Claims. Department of Defense Spokesperson Sabrina Singh said that the United States remains “skeptical” of reports that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has built a hypersonic ballistic missile. The statement follows claims from Iran earlier this month that it tested its first three-stage space launch vehicle, which would allow 80 kg satellites to be placed in orbit only 500 km from the earth’s surface. The United States has called these reports “destabilizing,” as space launch technology could be used to launch and carry nuclear warheads.

Under Secretary Kahl Meets with Jordanian Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. On November 19, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl met with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of the Jordan Armed Forces Major General Yousef al-Hnaity in Manama, Bahrain. The two discussed US-Jordan defense cooperation, contributions to the Defeat-ISIS campaign, and the importance of multilateral integration in the region.

4) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions 13 Companies Involved in Iranian Petrochemical and Petroleum Sales. On November 17, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced sanctions on 13 companies involved in the facilitation of the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Iranian petrochemical and petroleum sales. The companies are based in the United Arab Emirates, China, and Hong Kong, and are being sanctioned for their role in helping Iranian companies sell petrochemicals and petroleum in East Asia.

Treasury Department Sanctions Employees of Iranian State-Run Broadcasting Network. On November 16, OFAC announced new sanctions on six senior employees of Iranian state-run media organization Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). According to OFAC, IRIB has been a critical arm of Iran’s media suppression efforts during recent protests. The network reportedly aired interviews of people confessing under duress that their relatives were not killed by Iranian forces during protests, and instead attributing their deaths to natural causes. It also frequently broadcasts false accusations against individuals who are viewed as enemies of the regime.

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Manufacturers Producing Missiles for Russia. On November 15, OFAC designated three Iranian firms and two individuals for their role in manufacturing and transporting drones to Russia for use in its war on Ukraine. According to Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen, this action is part of the US strategy “to disrupt Russia’s war effort and deny the equipment it needs through sanctions and export controls.” This action follows similar European Union sanctions applied on October 20.

5) US Commission on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Condemns Iran’s Death Sentences for Protesters. On November 15, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) condemned death sentences imposed on protesters in Iran for asserting their freedom of religion. Since the killing of Mahsa Amini and the protests that erupted in the wake of her death, over 2,000 protesters in Iran have been indicted for improperly wearing the hijab, and multiple protesters are facing the death penalty on religiously-grounded charges, including “enmity against God.” USCIRF Commissioner Sharon Kleinbaum applauded the United Nations for scheduling a special session on Iran and called on it to hold Iranian officials accountable.

6) Department of Justice

FBI to Open US Investigation into Shireen Abu Akleh’s Death. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has launched an investigation into the killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot in the head by Israeli forces while reporting in the West Bank city of Jenin in May 2022. Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz denounced the investigation, saying that Israel will not cooperate and calling it a “grave mistake.” Outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid criticized the investigation during a swearing-in ceremony for the Knesset, saying, “Our strong protest has been conveyed to the Americans at the appropriate levels.” White House and State Department officials reportedly told Israeli officials that the Biden administration was not involved in the decision to investigate Abu Akleh’s death.