Washington Policy Weekly

I. Congress

1) Legislation

Senate Agrees to Resolution Thanking Qatari Government for Efforts During Operation Allies Refuge. On May 26, the Senate agreed to S.Res.390, “a resolution expressing appreciation for the State of Qatar’s efforts to assist the United States during Operation Allies Refuge.” The bill was introduced last September by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and referred to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, where it was agreed to without amendment and placed on the Senate’s legislative agenda. Operation Allies Refuge took place in August 2021, in which the United States airlifted American citizens and Afghan nationals who have assisted the US government out of Afghanistan as the Taliban took power.

Sen. Cruz Wants to Make Upgrades to Bahrain-Based Fifth Fleet. On May 24, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced S.4300 to the Committee on Armed Services “to express the sense of Congress on security cooperation with Bahrain” and to require a report on possible upgrades to the Fifth Fleet that is stationed in the small island nation.

Sen. Paul Objects to Selling Defense Articles to Egypt. On May 26, Senator Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) introduced S.J.Res.48 to the Committee on Foreign Affairs that would prohibit the sale of military articles and services to Egypt. The Biden Administration had notified Congress on May 19 that it intends to sell Egypt $691 million worth of defense articles and equipment.

2) Personnel and Correspondence

Senate Letter Backs Israeli Missile Defense Aid. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Mike Rounds (R-South Dakota) wrote a letter to the head of the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, headed by Senator Jon Tester (D-Montana) advocating for $500 million in “U.S.-Israel missile defense collaboration.” The letter garnered bipartisan support, with 34 Democrats and 10 Republicans signing onto it. The proposed funding would go toward the Iron Dome, David’s Sling, and Arrow 3 missile defense systems, and mentions the importance of countering hostile drones. Sen. Gillibrand and Sen. Rounds have collaborated on similar letters in the past, receiving 38 signatures in their letter for FY 2022. In a statement, Sen. Gillibrand called the bond between Israel and the US “unshakeable,” and Sen. Rounds highlighted how defense collaboration with Israel also strengthens US security capabilities.

Lawmakers Condemn West Bank Evictions. After the Israeli Supreme Court approved plans to evict more than 1,000 Palestinians in Masafer Yatta of the occupied West Bank, 83 US senators and representatives wrote a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemning the evictions and urging him to act before President Biden visits Israel next month. The letter was led by Representative Melanie Stansbury (D-New Mexico) and Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) and argued that the evictions would infringe on Palestinian human rights, reduce the possibility of a two-state solution, and harm Israel’s security.

A Dozen Democratic Reps. Write to Biden Administration about Israeli Restrictions. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-New York) and 11 other Democratic House members wrote the Biden Administration in opposition to Israel’s new restrictions in the occupied West bank. Occupation authorities have instituted new regulations for travel to the occupied territories that would affect Palestinians visiting the area, many of whom are US citizens.

AIPAC and J Street Choose Primary Endorsements. Israel was a prominent topic in the Democratic primary for Georgia’s newly drawn 7th Congressional district. The leading candidates had both represented Georgia in the House of Representatives since 2021 and 2019 respectively: Representative Carolyn Bordeaux (D-Georgia) and Representative Lucy McBath (D-Georgia). Rep. McBath, despite receiving support from progressive Democrats like Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), was endorsed by AIPAC and Democratic Majority for Israel, while Rep. Bordeaux was endorsed by the more left-leaning J-Street. Rep. McBath won the Democratic nomination with 63 percent of the vote to Rep. Bordeaux’s 31 percent.

3) Hearings and Briefings

Senate Holds Hearing on JCPOA Path Forward. On May 25, the Senate held a hearing to discuss JCPOA negotiations and a path forward for US policy toward Iran. Witness testimony was heard from US Envoy for Iran Robert Malley and representatives from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, Senators Robert Menendez (D-New Jersey) and James Risch (R-Idaho), gave opening statements. Senator Risch was openly critical of the nuclear deal, calling it “fatally flawed” and highlighting security concerns. Senator Menendez expressed similar hesitance, and blamed Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in 2015 for the current situation with Iran.

4) Nominations 

US Ambassador to Iraq Sworn in by Kamala Harris. On May 24, Vice President Kamala Harris swore in career diplomat Alina Romanowski as US Ambassador to Iraq. Romanowski, whose nomination was confirmed by the Senate in March, most recently served as US Ambassador to Kuwait and has decades of experience in intelligence and the State Department. She has identified work with political and civil society groups as one of her key priorities as an ambassador.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Holds Hearing on Potential Sudan Ambassador. On May 24, the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing to discuss the appointment of John T. Godfrey as US Ambassador to Sudan. Godfrey, a career diplomat, recently served as Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism, and was previously the Acting Deputy Chief of Mission at US Embassy Riyadh.

II. Executive Branch

1) White House

President Biden Maintains IRGC’s Terrorist Designation. President Biden has reportedly decided to keep Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps on the Foreign Terrorist Organizations list, where it has been since 2019. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett confirmed that Biden relayed the news to him in an April 24 phone call, and publicly supported the decision. As nuclear negotiations with Iran continue, the Iranian government has stated that removal from the list is a requirement if any agreement is to be reached. However, the Biden Administration has refused to do so unless security provisions are added to the deal. The Israeli government has also been a main opponent of both the JCPOA and removal of the IRGC from the terrorism list.

2) Department of State

Blinken Speaks with Israel’s Lapid Regarding Investigating Abu Aqleh’s Assassination. On May 27, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid about the need for Israel to conclude the investigation into the assassination of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh. The Israeli government had declared on May 19 that it would not conduct a criminal investigation into the killing which evidence shows was done by an Israeli sniper.

Blinken Speaks with Shoukry about Yemen. Secretary Blinken spoke by phone with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry about the Yemen crisis and Egypt’s role in helping to implement the part of the ceasefire agreement related to resuming flights between Sanaa airport and Egypt.

US Envoy to Iran Doubts Return to JCPOA. In a Senate hearing on the JCPOA, US Special Envoy to Iran Robert Malley described the future of the nuclear deal as “tenuous” and said a failed negotiation process is currently more likely than a success. This comes as the Biden Administration decided to keep the IRGC on the Foreign Terrorist Organization list—a status that Iran wants removed as a part of any nuclear agreement. However, Malley expressed his dedication to continuing nuclear talks as long as the non-proliferation benefits of the deal are maintained.

Separately, the United States impounded a ship the Department of Justice said was carrying Iranian oil in Greek waters. The vessel was impounded pursuant to previously imposed sanctions on it. The oil was transferred to another vessel secured by the United States.

US and Lebanese Officials Discuss Syrian Hostage Negotiations. Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Directorate for General Security, flew to Washington, DC to meet with senior White House, State Department, and intelligence officials. A central discussion topic was the release of Austin Tice, an American journalist missing in Syria since 2012 and assumed to be taken hostage. Maj Gen Ibrahim has negotiated several foreign hostage releases in Syria and Iran in the past. Other topics discussed at this meeting included social instability in Lebanon and maritime demarcation between Lebanon and Israel.

US Negotiating Deal Between Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Israeli news outlet Walla reported that the US is negotiating a strategic transfer of two Red Sea islands, Tiran and Sanafir, from Egypt to Saudi Arabia. The islands are located near the Israeli and Jordanian port cities of Eilat and Aqaba and were previously occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. This deal could lead to security arrangements and relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Special Climate Envoy John Kerry Hails UAE Climate Action. At a World Economic Forum press conference, Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry described the UAE’s “critical role” in mitigating global warming and pursuing a path to net-zero emissions. The UAE has a large solar energy program and is exploring green hydrogen while aiding other countries with their energy transitions. However, Kerry also advocated for more oil and gas production in the Middle East to help short-term supply shocks caused by the war in Ukraine and sanctions applied on Russia, a leading global oil and gas producer.

US Officials Concerned About Potential Turkish Intervention in Syria. On May 26, Turkey’s National Security Council issued an ambiguous statement regarding Turkish operations along the Syrian border, and many are concerned that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will follow through with previous threats he made of attacking US-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria and establish a 30 km “safe-zone” across the border. US officials labeled these threats as “serious.” These threats come as tensions rise between Turkey and NATO allies because of the former’s objections to Finland and Sweden’s attempts to join the alliance.

US Envoy to Yemen Optimistic Regarding UN Truce. Tim Lenderking, US Special Envoy for Yemen, announced that he is “cautiously optimistic” about results of the truce that came into effect April 2, and he hopes that the truce will lead to long-term peace agreements. However, the warring parties must be committed to the peace process and agree to work together to improve the humanitarian situation, end the siege on Taiz, and resume fuel shipments, among other actions. He also thanked Saudi Arabia and Oman for their diplomatic efforts. The UN-backed truce has led to a reduction in casualties and cross border attacks, and commercial flights have resumed from Sanaa for the first time in six years.

DoS Holds Strategic Dialogue with Organization of Islamic Cooperation. On May 23 and 24, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation held talks with US officials in Washington. Attendees included Secretary of State Antony Blinken, OIC Secretary General Hissein Brahim Taha, and several senior State Department officials. Topics at their meetings ranged from regional to environmental issues, COVID-19, human rights, and extremism. Additionally, the two parties affirmed their respect for universal human and women’s rights.

DoS Urges Israel Not to Proceed with Sudan Normalization. As relations between Sudan and Israel remain tenuous since Sudan’s October 2021 military coup, the State Department has warned Israel not to proceed with normalization until Sudan has a credible, civilian led government. Sudan is a signatory of the Abraham Accords.

Blinken Recognizes Eid. At a May 26 reception held by the Office of International Religious Freedom, Secretary of State Antony Blinken wished a belated Eid Mubarak to guests. He thanked his colleagues and the Muslim community for their presence and contributions, and reaffirmed US commitment to international religious freedom.

DoS Condemns Iraq’s Anti-Israel Normalization Law. On May 26, the State Department released a statement on Iraq’s new law criminalizing individual or business relations with Israel. DoS Spokesperson Ned Price said that the new bill jeopardizes “freedom of expression” and promotes “an environment of antisemitism”.

DoS Pleads for Release of Local Staff in Yemen. After retired USAID employee Abldulhameed al-Ajami died in Houthi detention, the State Department published a statement calling for the release of all current and former US government employees detained in Sanaa.

Blinken Calls Somali President. On May 25, Secretary of State Antony Blinken called Somali President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud. He congratulated the president on his election, and discussed the political, security, and economic issues essential to address in order to support Somalia on a path to democracy and stability.

3) Department of Defense

DoD Announces $2.6 Billion Helicopter Sale to Egypt. In a May 26 press release, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency announced that the United States will sell a number of CH-47F Chinook helicopters, valued at around $2.6 billion, to the government of Egypt. The principal contractor of the sale will be Boeing, and several US officials will be assigned to support the delivery and training of the helicopters in Egypt. They stated that the purpose of the sale is to improve US foreign policy and national security by aiding a major non-NATO partner.

4) Departments of Treasury

Dept. Of Treasury Sanctions International Network of Hamas Financial Facilitators. On May 24, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control sanctioned a network of individuals and companies that allegedly provide funding for Hamas through a secret investment portfolio. The network is overseen by Hamas’s Investment Office, and Hamas Finance Ministry official Abdallah Yusuf Faisal Sabri was among those sanctioned, in addition to six businesses across Algeria, the UAE, Turkey, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia. Hamas was designated as a terrorist organization by the US in 1997, and these sanctions were evoked under Executive Order 13224, which permits the Department of the Treasury to block assets of those associated with terrorism.

Dept. Of Treasury Targets IRGC/Hezbollah Oil Smuggling Network. On May 25, the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control announced that it has identified and sanctioned an international network that has sold and smuggled hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of Iranian oil in order to finance the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF) and Hezbollah. The network is led by IRGC-QF official Behnam Shahriyari and former IRGC-QF official Rostam Ghasemi, and has financial connections to Russia. This news comes as President Biden announced that the IRGC will remain on Washington’s terror designation list; removal from the list was requested by Iran during JCPOA negotiations.

US Issues Sudan Business Advisory. On May 23, the US Departments of State, Labor, Treasury, and Commerce issued a joint business advisory highlighting reputational risks for US businesses and individuals associated with Sudanese state-owned enterprises and military-controlled companies. The risks originate in human rights violations by the Sudanese government against protesters and dissidents, some of which predate the October 2021 military coup, but have been increasing in recent months. Additionally, they mentioned that US businesses should avoid individuals on the Office of Foreign Asset Control’s list of Specially Designated Nationals. The statement reiterated US support of a civilian-led, elected government in Sudan.