Washington Policy Weekly

I. Legislative Branch

1) Legislation

2023 NDAA Finalized with Key Policies for MENA Region. On December 6, the House and the Senate finalized H.R. 7776, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2023. The final version, which has been passed by the House and will likely be voted on in the Senate this week, includes provisions banning State Department officials from advising “adversary governments” such as Iran and Syria, stopping the flow of drugs in the region, countering Iran’s “aggressive conduct,” creating an integrated air and missile defense network to counter Iran, and funding civilian harm reduction efforts. However, lawmakers removed an earlier draft provision that would have conditioned the sale of F-16 fighter jets to Turkey. Meanwhile, Senators Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey) and Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), longtime opponents of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), celebrated the passing of their own provision, the Iran Nuclear Weapons Capability Monitoring Act of 2022, as part of the legislation. The act requires the State Department to regularly report to Congress on Iran’s nuclear program. Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York), meanwhile, expressed his disappointment that the massive defense spending bill “failed to include important provisions related to accountability for Saudi Arabia’s actions against dissidents and civil society.”

Representative Gaetz Introduces Saudi Arabia Anti-Terror and Accountability Act. On December 6, Representative Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) introduced H.R. 9435, an act that would recognize the three-year anniversary of a December 9, 2019 shooting at a Naval air station in Pensacola, Florida, in which a Saudi Royal Air Force member shot and killed three US sailors. If passed and signed into law, the bill would prohibit the Department of Defense from funding Saudi-led proxy wars and halt weapons exports and military personnel exchanges with the kingdom. The bill would also secure compensation for the victims’ families.

Representative Suozzi Promotes Iran Hostage Crisis Bill on House Floor. On December 6, Representative Tom Suozzi (D-New York) spoke on the House floor about his bill, H.R. 1179, the Iran Hostages Congressional Gold Medal Act. Originally introduced in February 2021, the bill would award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 53 Americans who were held hostage in Iran from 1979 to 1981.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Advances Resolutions on Iran and Israel. On December 7, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted to advance two resolutions to the Senate floor: S.Res. 730, which commemorates the 30th anniversary of the 1992 bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Argentina, and S.Con.Res. 47, a concurrent resolution commending Iranian protesters. The committee also held a business meeting the same day, during which members discussed the nomination of Joey R. Hood for the position of US Ambassador to Tunisia and considered an amendment to S. 4996, the Syria Detainee and Displaced Persons Act.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senator Sanders to Introduce Yemen War Powers Resolution. On December 6, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said that he will “hopefully” bring a war powers resolution blocking US support for the war in Yemen to the Senate floor next week. Senator Sanders previously sponsored a 2019 war powers resolution to end US involvement in Yemen, which former President Trump ultimately vetoed. On December 7, 100 American organizations, led by the Friends Committee on National Legislation, sent a letter to Congress urging lawmakers to support the Yemen war powers resolution.

Senator Warren and Representative Jacobs Want to Investigate Retired Military Officers Advising Foreign Governments. On December 7, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) and Representative Sara Jacobs (D-California) sent letters to the leaders of five consulting firms requesting information regarding the companies’ work with foreign governments. The letters were a response to a recent Washington Post investigation detailing how retired US military personnel go on to advise foreign governments, including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In their letters, the legislators specifically request information about retired US military personnel working for the firms, and ask that this information be provided to them by December 21.

Representative Meeks Welcomes Sudanese Political Agreement. On December 5, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York) welcomed news of a preliminary political framework agreement in Sudan but stated that the parties involved “must work through issues of accountability, inclusion and reform.”

Representative Porter Condemns Iran’s Targeting of Children. On December 7, Representative Katie Porter (D-California) spoke on the House floor, condemning the deaths of more than 60 children during the Iranian government’s crackdown on protesters.

Representative-elect Moskowitz Aims for House Foreign Affairs Committee Spot to Support Israel. Jared Moskowitz, the incoming Florida Democrat who will fill the seat vacated by former Representative Ted Deutch (D-Florida), stated that he is aiming to take Deutch’s seat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee as well, in order to build on his predecessor’s support for Israel. Moskowitz also stated that he will wait to judge incoming far-right Israeli ministers, and that US lawmakers “shouldn’t be interfering in [Israeli] domestic politics.”

House Lawmakers Push to Defund UN Israel Inquiry. On December 6, 49 representatives sent a letter to the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, expressing concern over the UN Commission of Inquiry on the Occupied Palestinian Territory. The lawmakers urged the United States delegation to restrict funding to the inquiry, claiming that the commission’s staff has made antisemitic comments and demonstrated bias.

Congressional Abraham Accords Caucus Leadership Participates in International Forum. On December 6, Co-chairs of the Senate and House Abraham Accords Caucuses, Senators James Lankford (R-Oklahoma), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada), and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), and Representative Brad Schneider (D-Illinois) participated in an Abraham Accords Interparliamentary Strategic Dialogue event. The forum, which included representatives from 13 EU countries, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Canada, was organized by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliate, the American Israel Education Foundation.

Senator Van Hollen Speaks on Iran Nuclear Deal and Israel. At a conference at the University of Maryland, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Maryland) argued that the Biden administration “missed an opportunity” to return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) early in its term. Van Hollen also expressed concern over the emergence of Israel’s new far-right government and urged the Biden administration to make “very clear that we will be calling out human rights abuses when we see them.”

Representative Omar and Senator Warren Urge Treasury Department to Promote Equal Banking Access. On December 2, Representative Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) sent a letter to US banking regulators calling for improved banking access for communities of color and immigrants, including American Muslims. Omar and Warren note in their letter the difficulties that many communities and charitable organizations face when sending financial assistance to countries impacted by US sanctions and called on the federal government to create formal and transparent channels for transactions made by nonprofit organizations. The lawmakers also highlighted a recent lawsuit from an Iranian immigrant who alleges that his bank account was closed due to his national origin.

Representative Meeks Speaks on Egyptian Human Rights Situation. On December 9, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York) spoke at an event on human rights in Egypt, during which he called on the Sisi regime to work harder to guarantee the rights of peaceful expression and assembly and to ensure a fair and transparent judicial process. Meeks said that while attending COP27 in November, he met and spoke with Egyptian political prisoners and their families, and vowed to advocate for the release of political prisoners Alaa Abd el-Fattah, Mohamed Ibrahim, and Mohamed El-Baqer.

Representative Meeks Joins Biden Administration in Condemning Iranian Execution. On December 9, Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Gregory Meeks (D-New York) condemned the execution of 23-year-old Iranian protestor Mohsen Shekari. Earlier in the week, the committee passed H.Con.Res 110, commending the protesters in Iran for their bravery. Representative Meeks’ condemnation of the execution followed similar statements from Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Special Envoy for Iran Robert Malley, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan.

3) Hearings and Briefings

House Foreign Affairs Committee Holds Hearing on Yemen Crisis. On December 6, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing with Special Envoy for Yemen Tim Lenderking and USAID Assistant to the Administrator Sarah Charles assessing US policy toward Yemen. During the hearing, Lenderking discussed the benefits of a now-expired UN-led truce, and blamed the Houthis for said expiration. Charles discussed the humanitarian funding gap that Yemen currently faces, singling out Gulf Arab states that have decreased their funding in recent years. Representatives asked the officials about the role Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran play in the war, and about what Congress can do to help resolve the crisis.

House Oversight Committee to Investigate Biden Administration’s Oil Production Dealings with Saudi Arabia. On December 4, Representative James Comer (R-Kentucky), who is expected to chair the House Committee on Oversight and Reform starting in January, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken to inform him of his committee’s investigation of an alleged deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia to boost oil production. The deal, which failed due to an October OPEC+ oil production cut, was intended to lower gas prices for Americans. Representative Comer requested documents and communications pertaining to the deal, as well as a transcribed interview with US Energy Envoy Amos Hochstein, by December 19.

II. Executive Branch

1) The White House

Biden Administration Responds to Chinese President’s Visit to Saudi Arabia. On December 7, White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby responded to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia, stating, “We are not asking nations to choose between the United States and China, but as the president has said many times, we believe that in this strategic competition the United States is certainly well poised to lead.” Kirby also confirmed that the Biden administration is still reviewing the US-Saudi bilateral relationship following the October OPEC+ decision to cut oil production.

President Biden Thanks UAE for its Role in Brittney Griner Release. On December 8, President Biden thanked the United Arab Emirates for its role in facilitating Russia’s release of Brittney Griner, who was freed in a prisoner swap that took place in Abu Dhabi. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also recognized the help of the administration’s “Emirati friends” in a statement on Griner’s release. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE claim to have played a role in the mediation efforts, but the administration has not mentioned Saudi Arabia’s role in its statements on the prisoner swap.

President Biden Sends Letter to Congressional Leadership on War Powers Report. On December 8, President Biden sent a letter to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and President Pro Tempore of the Senate Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) detailing the administration’s War Powers report, as required by law. In the letter, Biden describes counterterrorism deployments of the US military to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Somalia.

Biden Administration Asks UN Not to Update List of Companies Operating in Israeli Settlements. The Biden administration reportedly asked UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk not to expand the list of companies operating in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank. The list was originally published in February 2020, with five of the 112 companies on the list (Booking, Airbnb, TripAdvisor, Expedia, and General Mills) being American.

Biden Administration Welcomes Israeli President’s Visit to Bahrain. On December 4, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan welcomed Israeli President Isaac Herzog’s historic visit to Bahrain as “another step towards an integrated and prosperous Middle East.” The visit, which was hailed as a success of the US-brokered Abraham Accords, was the first instance in which an Israeli president has traveled to Bahrain.

White House Warns Against Turkish Operations in Syria. On December 7, White House National Security Council Spokesperson John Kirby expressed that although the United States recognizes Turkey’s right to defend itself, it does not want to see further military attacks in northwest Syria. Kirby said that Turkey’s military actions targeting the US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces threaten civilians and US military personnel and harm the US-led coalition to defeat the so-called Islamic State.

2) Department of State

State Department Opposes Al Jazeera Effort to Bring Abu Akleh Case to ICC. On December 6, State Department Spokesperson Ned Price voiced opposition to news organization Al Jazeera’s effort to bring the Israeli military’s killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Despite advocating for “accountability,” Price said that the ICC should stick to its core mission of “serving as a court of last resort in punishing and deterring atrocity crimes.” In September, after Israel admitted that Abu Akleh was likely killed by an Israeli soldier, the Biden administration urged Israeli authorities to review their military’s rules of engagement concerning the mitigation of civilian harm, but Israeli leaders rejected the request.

Deputy Representative Mills Advocates for Islamic State Repatriation at UN Security Council. On December 5, US Deputy Representative to the United Nations Richard Mills advocated at the UN Security Council for the repatriation of foreign fighters for the so-called Islamic State (IS) fighters. Mills said that repatriation is essential to preventing potential radicalization in the camps where foreign fighters and their families are currently being held. Thousands of foreign IS fighters are in Iraqi custody, or in Kurdish-controlled camps in northern Syria, and repatriation has been a slow process, with several European countries denying responsibility for their citizens.

US and Netherlands Host Meeting of Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS. On December 7, the United States and the Netherlands hosted a political directors meeting for the Small Group of the Global Coalition to Defeat Daesh/ISIS. During the meeting, Dutch and US officials discussed recent developments in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS), including international repatriation efforts and security concerns at the al-Hol camp in Syria where many foreign IS fighters and their families are being held.

State Department Issues Joint Statement Condemning Technology-Facilitated Repression of Women in Iran. On December 8, in conjunction with other members of the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, the State Department issued a joint statement condemning the violent crackdown on protesters in Iran. The statement denounced the Iranian authorities’ abuse of women and girls on digital platforms and through internet restrictions, and urged technology companies to implement measures to prevent harassment, abuse, and misinformation on their platforms and to ensure that Iranian women and girls can access information online.

State Department Appoints New Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs. On December 5, Andrew Miller became Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israeli-Palestinian Affairs. Miller previously worked with US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and has worked at the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and on President Obama’s National Security Council. Miller replaces Hady Amr, who was promoted to Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs in November.

State Department Restricts Visas for Sudanese Nationals Undermining Democratic Transition. On December 7, the State Department announced that it will expand its current visa restriction policy under the Immigration and Nationality Act to target Sudanese officials who are working to undermine the country’s democratic transition or who commit human rights violations.

State Department Announces Sanctions on Russian Entities involved in Iranian Drone Proliferation. On December 9, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the State Department is imposing sanctions on three Russian entities involved in the proliferation of Iranian drones. Russia has used the Iranian drones for its war in Ukraine, and according to the State Department, the transfers violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

US and Morocco Host Proliferation Security Workshop. From December 6 to 8, the United States and Morocco co-hosted a North African Proliferation Security Initiative workshop in Tangier, Morocco. At the workshop, military and civilian leaders reviewed trends in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, attended expert briefings, and engaged in a scenario-based tabletop exercise.

3) Department of Defense

US Military Resumes Joint Patrols with Syrian Democratic Forces. US forces have resumed joint operations and patrols with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeastern Syria. Last week, SDF Chief Commander Mazloum Abdi said that these joint operations were paused due to Turkish airstrikes against the US-supported Kurdish militia.

CENTCOM Condemns Unsafe Iranian Maritime Actions in Strait of Hormuz. On December 6, US Central Command (CENTCOM) condemned the unsafe and dangerous actions of an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) patrol boat in the Strait of Hormuz. According to CENTCOM, the ship attempted to blind surrounding vessels and passed two US ships at an unsafe distance. US vessels deescalated the situation using audible warnings and lasers, continuing their movement without further incident.

CENTCOM Kills Islamic State Officials in Syria. On December 11, US CENTCOM announced that it had conducted a helicopter raid in Syria in which it killed two officials of the so-called Islamic State (IS).

Defense Under Secretary Kahl Meets with Israeli Chief of General Staff Halevi. On December 6, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl met with incoming Chief of the Israeli General Staff Major General Herzi Halevi. The two reaffirmed the partnership between the United States and Israel and discussed Israel’s qualitative mmilitary edge, efforts to counter threats from Iran, and ways to increase bilateral cooperation.

4) US Commission on International Religious Freedom

USCIRF Releases Report on Turkish Blasphemy Laws. On December 6, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) issued a report reviewing the criminalization of blasphemy in Article 216(3) of the Turkish Penal Code. The report noted that the use of this law is often politically motivated, and is used to punish individuals who are perceived to have criticized either Islam or Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In its 2022 annual report, USCIRF recommended that the State Department add Turkey to its special watch list for severe violations of religious freedom.

5) US Agency for International Development

USAID Signs $10.45 Million Water Management Agreement with Jordan. On December 6, USAID signed a $10.45 million dollar agreement with the Jordan Valley Authority to upgrade the northern stretch of the King Abdullah Canal. USAID will contribute $9.5 million to the project, which will aim to reduce water loss and improve water efficiency on the canal.

6) Department of the Treasury

Treasury Department Sanctions IRGC Oil Sale Network. On December 8, the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated a sanctions evasion network that facilitates the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars of oil revenue for Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF). The sanctions target a network led by Turkish businessman Sitki Ayan, whose companies have been crucial to the sale and shipment of oil and to the laundering of revenue to help Iran evade sanctions.

Treasury Department Sanctions Iranian Human Rights Abusers. On December 9, OFAC announced sanctions targeting 40 individuals and entities engaged in corruption and human rights abuses in various countries around the world. The designation targeted three Iranian security officials who helped brutally suppress protests with grave human rights violations.

7) Central Intelligence Agency

CIA Director Burns Calls Turkish Counterpart About Strikes in Syria. On December 7, CIA Director William Burns called Turkish National Intelligence Head Hakan Fidan to condemn recent Turkish strikes in Syria. Burns urged Fidan against a ground invasion and warned that strikes endanger US troops.

III. Judicial Branch

Federal Court Dismisses Lawsuit Against Saudi Crown Prince for Khashoggi Murder. On December 6, a US district court dismissed a lawsuit filed against Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) over his role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. US District Judge John Bates argued that although there was a strong claim by the plaintiffs, the court does not have jurisdiction over the Saudi defendants. This ruling comes shortly after MBS became the prime minister of Saudi Arabia, which led the Biden administration to advise that he should be granted diplomatic immunity as a head of state.