Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress


Congressional Debate over Weapons Sale to Saudi Arabia. This week, tensions in Congress rose as the Senate prepared to vote on S.J.Res.31, a joint resolution providing congressional disapproval of US arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Senators Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Mike Lee (R-Utah) introduced the resolution last month, and the Senate is currently voting on whether to discharge the bill from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) onto the Senate floor. Paul claims that halting the $650 million arms deal would send a clear message to Saudi Arabia that the United States disapproves of its actions in Yemen.

The resolution boasts bipartisan support, including Congressional Progressive Caucus leaders, as stated in a recent press release from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota). In the House of Representatives in early November, Omar also introduced S.J.Res.31’s partner bill, H.R.Res.63. However, the bill has been met with steep disapproval as well. One of its fiercest opponents is SFRC Chairman Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey), who argued on the Senate floor Tuesday that the United States must show its foreign partners that it upholds its commitments and “prioritize[s] security arrangements that protect civilians.” Menendez emphasized that his position does not mean that he will not hold Saudi Arabia accountable for what he called “the devastation in Yemen.”

House Bill to Prohibit Contributions to UNRWA. On December 7, Rep. Lance Gooden (R-Texas) introduced H.R.6155 to the House Foreign Relations Committee that would prohibit US funding of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East as well as of the International Organization for Migration and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The bill has 11 Republican cosponsors. No text of the bill has yet been published.

Rep. Gaetz Affirms Jewish Connection to Jerusalem. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Florida) introduced a resolution (H.Res.843) that recognizes the historic connection of the Jewish people to the city of Jerusalem and affirms that archeological finds discovered there are proof of this connection. The resolution was introduced to accompany another at the United Nations that affirmed “the historic status quo at the holy places of Jerusalem.” In the latter case, the UN General Assembly “reiterated its determination that any actions taken by Israel, the occupying Power, to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on the Holy City of Jerusalem are illegal.”

Congress Celebrates Bahrain’s Independence. This week, Rep. Nicole Malliotakis (R-New York) introduced H.Res.841, recognizing Bahrain on the 50th anniversary of its independence and emphasizing its role as a strategic partner since 1971. In a press release, Rep. Malliotakis stressed Bahrain’s importance as an ally in the Gulf region, especially as tensions with Iran rise.

Bipartisan Bill to Introduce Sanctions on Iranians. This week, Senators Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) and Pat Toomey (R-Pennsylvania) introduced a bipartisan bill to impose sanctions on individuals complicit in human rights abuses in Iran, referred to as the Masih Alinejad HUNT Act (S.3347). The senators claim the legislation was inspired by Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad, the target of an attempted kidnapping by the Iranian regime from her home in Brooklyn. In a press release, Senator Cardin emphasized that human rights abuses by authoritarian regimes occurring “on American soil cannot go unchallenged.”

House Bill to Impose Sanctions on Sudan. On December 7, Rep. Young Kim (R-California) introduced H.R.6140 to the House Foreign Relations Committee for the purpose of imposing sanctions on Sudan. Reps. Dean Phillips (D-Minnesota), Michael McCaul (R-Texas), and David Cicilline (D-New Jersey) cosponsored the bill. No text of the bill has yet been published.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

Biden Nominates Ambassador to Iraq. On December 9, President Joe Biden nominated Alina Romanowski to be ambassador to Iraq. A career member of the Senior Executive Service, Romanowski previously served as ambassador to Kuwait and as the State Department’s Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism.

White House Threatens New Measures against Iran. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said during a press briefing on December 9 that President Biden has ordered his assistants to prepare “additional measures” against Iran if the current round of nuclear negotiations in Vienna fails to reach an agreement. The measures Psaki mentioned refer to sanctions that further impact Iran’s economy. The threat came after the Islamic Republic went back on promises made during earlier rounds of talks with European countries, Russia, China, and the United States.

2) State Department

Nuland Visits the Middle East. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland began a trip on December 7 to the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and the West Bank as well as the United Kingdom. Nuland will visit Dubai’s Expo 2020 and will discuss bilateral and regional issues with Israeli and Palestinian officials. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter will visit India, Qatar, and the UAE between December 7 and 17. In Qatar and the UAE, she will observe operations in support of Afghan settlement and immigration and meet with local officials.

Blinken Talks to the UAE’s Mohammed bin Zayed. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talked by phone to Abu Dhabi, UAE, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) about regional issues of mutual concern. The call comes after MbZ paid a visit to Turkey, where he revived Emirati-Turkish relations, and following Blinken’s declared disappointment with the ongoing negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program.

3) Defense Department

Drug Interdiction Facility in Bahrain. US Central Command announced on December 8 that an interagency group of officials attended the opening ceremony of a drug interdiction and information sharing facility in Bahrain. Operations will be conducted by the US Navy and partner law enforcement agencies that will monitor the Middle East region.

Austin Meets with Israel’s Gantz. On December 9, US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin III met with Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The two affirmed agreement that Iran and its regional activities are their main concerns. As on previous occasions, Austin reiterated the American commitment to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons. On December 8, Reuters had published remarks by a senior American official that Austin and Gantz were expected to discuss “possible military exercises that would prepare for a worst-case scenario to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities should diplomacy fail.”

4) Treasury Department

Treasury Sanctions Iranian Individuals and Entities. On December 7, the Treasury Department sanctioned Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces Special Units for their violations of Iranian prisoners’ human rights following the election of 2009 and later. The sanctions were imposed pursuant to Executive Order 13553 of 2011 and apply also to individuals involved in suppressing protests since 2009.

5) Justice Department

US Seizes Iranian Weapons and Petroleum Products. On December 7, the Justice Department announced that the US Navy interdicted two illegal Iranian shipments in the Arabian Sea. The first was a weapons shipment from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to Yemen’s Houthis and the second constituted petroleum products destined for Venezuela. The department said that proceeds from the sale of the seized petroleum—some $26.7 million—may be directed to the US Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism Fund.

6) Energy Department

DOE and Israeli Partners Announce New Project. On Thursday, the US Department of Energy announced a joint effort with the Israeli Ministry of Energy and the Israel Innovation Authority to fund $5.48 million to six clean energy projects worth $12.7 million, through the Binational Industrial Research and Development (BIRD) Energy program. The announcement follows the international climate conference, COP26, where both countries emphasized their commitment to green energy.

7) District of Columbia

DC Names a Street after Khashoggi. On December 8, the Washington, DC municipal council named a street next to the Saudi Arabian embassy in the American capital Jamal Khashoggi Way. The vote of the council was unanimous.