Is Washington Rethinking Its Partnerships in the Middle East?

There appears to be a slow but noticeable shift in Democratically-controlled Washington as to the countries with which the United States seeks to work closer and those which are enjoying less favorable treatment. In the past few weeks, Jordanian King Abdullah II enjoyed a slate of high-profile engagements with President Joe Biden, senior members of Congress, and a number of important Cabinet secretaries in what Curtis R. Ryan called a reset of US-Jordanian relations. Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi and his entourage enjoyed similar treatment and secured a number of crucial commitments on assistance and the presence of American military personnel in Iraq. Like King Abdullah, Kadhimi also received a warm welcome from members of Congress such as Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and Senator Jim Risch (R-Idaho).

Other Arab states—namely Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt—appear to be facing more scrutiny and the prospects of less engagement with the United States than they enjoyed during the Trump Administration. Additionally, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are growing more insistent that President Biden make good on campaign promises to reorient US partnerships away from the more reckless actors in the region. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut) argued on the Senate floor that the US government should withhold $300 million in assistance to Egypt. Across the Capitol, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Michigan) spoke in favor of lifting the current Saudi-led blockade of Yemen. A group of House and Senate progressives implored the White House to provide them with a private, classified briefing on the administration’s strategy for ending support for the Yemen war. According to one report about that meeting, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), and presumably her colleagues, called on the administration to do more to ensure the end of that aforementioned blockade.

To say that President Biden and the Democratic majorities in Congress are fundamentally reshaping US relations with the more repressive authoritarian regimes is an overstatement, however. In the last week alone it was reported that Biden Administration officials have moved to intervene in a lawsuit targeting the Saudi government and its top officials, perhaps inadvertently tipping the scale in favor of the Saudi leadership. In addition, it appears that the Biden team is committed to providing the UAE with a fleet of F-35s in a deal completed before the end of the last administration but that was technically put under review on the arrival of a new administration.

But of course, no debate in Washington about Middle East priorities is complete without some arguing for more strident punishment of the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people, or the Palestinian diaspora. Republicans Chip Roy (Texas) of the House and Jim Risch of the Senate introduced legislation (H.R. 4721/S. 2479) to potentially cut funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the entity tasked with providing assistance to Palestinian refugees.

Also Happening in Washington

I. Congress

1) Legislation

State-Foreign Operations Appropriations. The House voted 217-212 to pass its fiscal year 2022 budget for the State Department and the US Agency for International Development and the US Mission to the United Nations. The bill totals  $62.24 billion, including $3.3 billion in unconditional assistance to Israel, boosted spending for Palestinians, and new conditions on assistance and security guarantees to Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

HFAC Marks Up Bill Condemning Turkey, Iran. The House Foreign Affairs Committee voted to move two resolutions out of committee, one condemning Turkey for its illegal occupation of parts of Cyprus (H. Res. 376) and another condemning the practice of what is known as “honor killings” in Iran (H. Res. 497).

Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act. Rep. Ilhan Omar introduced a bill, H.R. 4718, this week, which she is calling the Stop Arming Human Rights Abusers Act, that seeks to, among other things, bar countries found to have engaged in different kinds of crimes—including but not limited to genocide, crimes against humanity, crimes of apartheid, and the use of torture—from receiving US security assistance, arms sales, or law enforcement exchanges. If the bill were to pass and be enforced in its original form, it would have major implications for regional states like Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Iran, and even Israel, thanks to the torture and crimes of apartheid provisions.

Though not directly related to this bill, if Omar had her way, Tunisia would also lose its access to US security assistance due to what many consider to be a “coup” undertaken by Tunisian President Kais Saied. Barring a reversal of his power grab, Tunisia should, according to US law, be stripped of all US security aid if the US government determines that the move was, in fact, a coup d’état.

EU: Fully Designate Hezbollah a Terrorist Organization. A bipartisan group in the House introduced H. Res. 558 calling on the European Union to designate Lebanese Hezbollah a terrorist organization in its entirety. As it stands, the Europeans differentiate between Hezbollah’s political and military wings, but these lawmakers argue there is no distinction. In a similar effort, Senators Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) wrote to the Prime Minister of Slovenia, the country that recently took up the presidency of the European Union, and urged him to prioritize countering Hezbollah, presumably by fully designating the group as a terrorist organization.

Expressing Solidarity with the Lebanese People. Rep. Darin LaHood (R-Illinois) introduced H. Res. 569 to express solidarity with the Lebanese people ahead of the one-year anniversary of the August 4, 2020 Port of Beirut explosion and amid the continued political and economic turmoil facing the country.

Anti-BDS Labeling Act. Republican Senators introduced S. 2489, or the Anti-Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Labeling Act, that would prevent future administrations from reversing President Trump’s decision to stop labeling products made in the occupied Palestinian territories as just that. Instead, the US government allows products made in the territories to be labeled “Made in Israel” and these senators say anything else is anti-Semitic.

TRAP Act. Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tennessee) introduced H.R. 4806, known as the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act, in an effort to end autocrats’ practice of abusing the International Criminal Police Organization (INTERPOL) to silence dissent. As noted when the Senate introduced a similar measure earlier this year, this legislation could have implications for Middle Eastern states like Turkey and Iran.

Israel Relations Normalization Act. According to one report, Senator Ted Cruz is holding up consideration of the Israel Relations Normalization Act (S. 1061), which seeks to promote the normalization of relations of more Arab and Muslim countries with Israel, because the bill expresses support for a two-state solution.

2). Personnel and Correspondence

Rep. Omar Requests Information About Biden’s Somalia Airstrikes. Rep. Ilhan Omar, who was born in Somalia, wrote to President Biden requesting information about his administration’s recent drone strikes against militants in the Arab League member state. In particular, Rep. Omar sought to unpack the administration’s legal justification of “collective self-defense” and how that idea fits into the broader policy toward Somalia. Other congressional Democrats have raised concerns about the strikes and the legal rationale given for them.

Rep. Gottheimer Writes to Ben & Jerry’s Parent Company on Boycott. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-New Jersey) recently wrote to Unilever PLC that owns Ben & Jerry’s ice cream company requesting that it force its subsidiary to reverse its decision to end sales in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Senator Rosen Speaks with Israeli FM Lapid. On July 27, Senator Jacky Rosen released a statement announcing she spoke with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid to congratulate him on the formation of a new Israeli government and to discuss bilateral US-Israeli relations. She also stated that the two explored ways the United States can further ensure Israel’s security, including by providing emergency funding to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system. On this, Rosen was not alone, as she was joined by colleagues on both sides of the aisle in writing to the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee requesting that they satisfy Israel’s request for $1 billion in emergency funds for the same purpose.

Bar Raisi from the United States. Republicans in the Senate sent a letter to President Biden urging him to prevent incoming Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other unnamed Iranian officials from traveling to the United States if the next United Nations General Assembly meets in-person. Due to Raisi’s past roles overseeing violence after the 1979 revolution, the senators argue that he should be denied a visa and remain sanctioned by the United States.

Senators Express Concern Over Imprisonment of al-Jabri Clan. A bipartisan quartet of senators sent a letter to President Biden expressing their concern about Saudi Arabia’s imprisonment of two of former intelligence officer Saad al-Jabri’s children. Al-Jabri is suing the kingdom and its leaders for trying to assassinate him and the Biden Administration is intervening to protect state secrets. These senators also fear for US secrets and said that Riyadh’s continued persecution of al-Jabri and his family threaten US national security interests.

“Enough is Enough.” Rep. Tom Malinowski and three of his colleagues published a statement in the wake of the revelations that countries in the Middle East and around the world used Israeli company NSO Group’s Pegasus software to spy on foreign officials, journalists, and dissidents. Although White House official Brett McGurk reportedly spoke to Israel’s Defense Ministry about the matter, the group of representatives said that the US government must do more and floated the possibility of levying Global Magnitsky sanctions against the group.

3). Hearings and Briefings

Ending Genocide: Accountability for Perpetrators. On July 28, the congressionally mandated Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and US Commission on International Religious Freedom held a joint hearing to explore ways the United States and the broader international community could join together to help hold accountable the perpetrators of genocide and other crimes against humanity. While many of the recommendations were legally technical, there was support among the witnesses for, at least in the United States, changing existing laws to allow US courts to hear criminal and civil cases against US citizens victimized by groups like the so-called Islamic State (IS). In addition, witnesses expressed support for Washington and other major governments convening a tribunal in places like Raqqa, Syria or Mosul, Iraq to provide justice for groups like the Yazidis that were subjected to abhorrent and systemic crimes by IS.

Lebanon: Assessing Political Paralysis, Economic Crisis, and Challenges for US Policy. On July 29, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing on Lebanon’s political, economic, and humanitarian situation and implications for US foreign policy. It was clear from both committee members and the witnesses that US assistance must be targeted—to the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF), for example—and support to the government must be conditioned on Beirut undertaking difficult but necessary reforms. Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute of Peace recommended that the Department of Defense provide support to the LAF via one-time cash assistance or direct support to army commissaries. Yacoubian and her fellow witness, Randa Slim of the Middle East Institute, also advocated for direct humanitarian assistance to struggling Lebanese citizens as well as the Syrian refugees living in the country. The third witness, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker, advocated for supporting the LAF but urged the US government to use that assistance as leverage to try and weed out senior military officials loyal to Hezbollah.

In order to push for reforms and the end of the endemic corruption in Lebanon, Yacoubian expressed support for targeted sanctions on known corrupt officials like former Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, but she cautioned that these sanctions must be applied across the board in order to avoid the appearance of partisanship. Slim also urged the United States to partner with others in the international community to place greater pressure on Lebanon’s political class to enact reforms and clean up corruption. Ultimately, Yacoubian said, the US goal should be to ensure that the 2022 elections occur on time and, to assist with this, she called for reestablishing funding for election monitoring in the country.

4). Nominations

SFRC Hears Testimony of Nominee for Political-Military Affairs. On July 28, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) met to hear testimony from four nominees, including Jessica Lewis, a long-time Hill staffer tapped to run the State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs. During her testimony, the nominee vowed to promote human rights as a key consideration for weapons. If this happens, it could have implications for all kinds of US partners in the region, but perhaps none more than Egypt and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states. While fielding questions from the committee, Ms. Lewis vowed to avoid the specious “emergency” certifications that the previous administration used to bypass Congress and approve large arms sales packages to both Saudi Arabia and the UAE and that enraged many in the Senate.

II. Executive Branch

1). White House

President Biden and His Team Meet with Iraqi Delegation. President Biden welcomed Prime Minister Kadhimi to the White House and senior administration officials met with their Iraqi counterparts in wide-ranging joint talks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Iraqi Foreign Minister Dr. Fuad Hussein as part of the broader joint strategic dialogue. Furthermore, Under Secretary for Defense Colin Kahl met with Iraq’s Defense Minister and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen met with her Iraqi counterpart.

2). Department of State

US Officials Increase Engagement with Middle East and North Africa. In addition to the aforementioned talks with Iraqi officials, a number of State Department officials engaged with officials in the Middle East and North Africa. Secretary of State Blinken spoke to Tunisian President Kais Saied after the latter’s consolidation of power in Tunis. Later, the secretary traveled to Kuwait for meetings with top Kuwaiti officials including the Emir, the crown prince, and the foreign minister.

Deputy Secretary of State Wendy R. Sherman traveled to Oman for a meeting with Deputy Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalifa Al Harthy where the two discussed bilateral cooperation and Oman’s efforts at mediating the conflict in Yemen. Renewing his mission, Special Envoy Timothy Lenderking visited Saudi Arabia for more discussions on ending the war in Yemen.

A pair of other State Department officials traveled to North Africa over the last week. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood visited Algeria and Morocco before leaving to join Secretary Blinken and his team in Kuwait. Later, US Ambassador and Special Envoy for Libya Richard Norland traveled to Tripoli for meetings, including with Interim Prime Minister Abdul-hamid Dbeibah.

State Department Levies Sanctions, Terrorist Designations, and Offers AssistanceState Department officials announced a slate of new actions effecting actors in the Middle East and North Africa. First, the Biden Administration designated two individuals accused of facilitating the illicit finance of al-Qaeda and its associated Syrian group known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. The department also announced sanctions on individuals and entities for human rights abuses in Syria. These sanctions are robust and target “eight Syrian prisons, five Assad regime officials in the institutions that run those facilities, two militia groups, and two militia leaders.”

The Biden Administration is also reportedly considering a new round of sanctions on Iran, this time focusing on the state’s guided missile and drone industry. These sanctions are being considered at a time when negotiations over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action have stalled and Iran demands increasingly unrealistic stipulations for its return to the deal. Aside from punitive measures outlined above, the State Department made efforts to extend $199 million in humanitarian assistance to the Somali people.