Temporary Protected Status for Lebanese Nationals. Last week, Reps. Rashida Tlaib (D-Michigan), Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan), Zoe Lofgren (D-California), and Jerrold Nadler (D-New York) introduced the “Lebanon TPS Act of 2021” (H.R.6095). The bill would allow Lebanese nationals to apply for Temporary Protected Status (TPS) according to Section 224 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (H.R.2580). Citing a “severe political crisis” caused by the Beirut Port explosion in 2020 and widespread poverty, supporters of the bill believe the government must protect Lebanese nationals living in the United States from deportation, according to a statement from Rep. Tlaib.
In September, Reps. Tlaib, Dingell, Lofgren, and Nadler wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to extend TPS to Lebanese nationals in the United States and those attempting to enter the country. Biden’s failure to meet the request triggered this introduction of H.R.6095.
Bipartisan Bill to Curb Iran’s Drone Program. On December 1, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks (D-New York) and Ranking Member Michael McCaul (R-Texas), along with Reps. Ted Deutch (D-Florida) and Joe Wilson (R-South Carolina), introduced a bipartisan bill, the Stop Iranian Drones Act (SIDA, or H.R.6089) to curb the development of the Islamic Republic’s unmanned combat aerial vehicles. A group of House Democrats and Republicans wants to make sure the current sanctions program on Iran’s conventional weapons applies to individuals involved in the development of drones.
Sanctions Proposed against Iranian Intelligence. Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) proposed legislation on December 2 to impose mandatory sanctions on those in Iran’s intelligence service involved in a plot to kidnap an Iranian-American journalist, Masih Alinejad. The legislation also imposes secondary sanctions on banks dealing with perpetrators. It should be mentioned that the Treasury Department already sanctioned four Iranians for their involvement in the plot in September.
II. Executive Branch
1) White House
Delegation Visits the Middle East. Last week, an interagency delegation from the National Security Council, Commerce Department, and State Department visited Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar. Discussion topics included economic and infrastructure issues, climate change, and sustainability goals.
2) State Department
US Supports Australia’s Hezbollah Designation. In a statement on November 26, the State Department announced that it welcomes Australia’s designation of Hezbollah—both its political and military wings—a terrorist organization. The statement said that the designation will help prevent the group’s activities in Australia and elsewhere.
US-Egyptian Cultural Cooperation. On November 30, the US ambassador to Egypt, Jonathan Cohen, signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Egypt’s antiquities chief, Mostafa Waziri, to cooperate on preserving Egypt’s cultural properties. The MOU will “identify, interdict, and return trafficked cultural heritage from Egypt.”
Blinken Not Encouraged on Talks with Iran. Secretary of States Antony Blinken expressed doubts about reviving the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, following the restart of talks in Vienna currently mediated by European countries. His pessimism was reciprocated by Iranian negotiators, who provided drafts of proposals in a new agreement to remove sanctions in exchange for commitments from Iran.
Blinken Talks to PM Bennett. On December 2, Secretary Blinken conversed by phone with Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. According to the State Department readout, the secretary discussed US nuclear talks with Iran, COVID-19, and Israeli and Palestinian steps that would not jeopardize the two-state solution.
US Joins Others in Supporting UN’s Pedersen’s Syria Mission. In a Media Note on December 2, the State Department reported on a joint meeting to support the efforts of the United Nations’ envoy to Syria, Geir Pedersen, to continue his mission in that country. The conferees pledged their support for his work with the Constitutional Committee that emerged from UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which was intended to pave the way for a peaceful resolution to the Syrian crisis.
US Joins Meeting of Coalition to Defeat Daesh. On December 3, the United States joined other members of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS in Brussels to update members and partners on developments in the fight against the organization. US Acting Special Envoy John Godfrey urged the attendees to focus on preventing the group’s resurgence in Iraq and Syria.
3) Defense Department
Austin Orders an Investigation into US Attack in Syria. On November 29, The New York Times published a report indicating that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III ordered an investigation into a 2019 attack in Syria by US aircraft that killed scores of women and children. The investigation will attempt to uncover who knew of the attack but sought to keep information about its deadly outcome from reaching the public.
US Navy Rescues Iranian Mariners. A US Navy ship rescued two Iranian sailors on November 27 in the Gulf of Oman after being adrift in Gulf waters for eight days. The ship then transported the sailors to an Omani coast guard vessel in the area.
Pentagon Still Studying Positioning of US Forces. On November 29, Newsweek reported that the Defense Department will not make any major changes in the positioning of US forces around the world but that more analysis will be needed for their deployment in the Middle East.
CENTCOM Conducts Attack in Syria’s Idlib. The US Central Command, or CENTCOM, conducted a drone attack on December 3 against an al-Qaeda commander in Idlib, Syria. The command also admitted that it is conducting an investigation into the possibility of civilian deaths in the attack.
4) US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF)
Saudi Arabia’s Targeting of Religious Freedom in Special Criminal Court. The USCIRF released a report regarding Saudi Arabia’s violation of religious freedom through prosecution in Special Criminal Courts (SCC). The commission claims the SCC issue harsher sentences, deny access to legal counsel, delay issuing decisions, and use inhumane methods to coerce confessions. The USCIRF highlights these actions as violating the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (H.R.2431) and emphasizes that while there have been minor reforms in Saudi Arabia, there need to be significant structural readjustments to address the severe religious freedom violations currently occurring. The commission advises that the US government continue to impose sanctions and visa restrictions on Saudi officials complicit in these violations.