Ted Cruz blocks Barbara Leaf from serving as top US diplomat for Middle East

Former US ambassador to UAE is President Biden’s pick for assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs

Ted Cruz speaks to reporters outside the Senate Chamber at the US Capitol in Washington. Bloomberg
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Ted Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas, has placed a hold on the nomination of Barbara Leaf — the former US ambassador to the UAE — to serve as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, multiple congressional staffers told The National.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee had planned to vote to advance her nomination on Tuesday, but Mr Cruz’s hold prevented it from doing so.

This will delay Ms Leaf’s full Senate confirmation to assume her post in the State Department and leave it without a Senate-confirmed diplomat to oversee US diplomacy in the Middle East.

Ms Leaf currently serves on the Middle East team on the White House National Security Council.

Politico obtained an email sent to Mr Cruz’s fellow Republicans on the committee claiming that Ms Leaf did not fully answer the senator's written questions as part of her confirmation process.

In one instance, Mr Cruz accused Ms Leaf of “false” testimony during her written response on Iran.

The question stipulates that President Joe Biden’s administration was considering what Mr Cruz characterised as “less-for-less” concessions to Iran to partially revive the nuclear deal.

The email says Ms Leaf responded by writing: “There have been no such arrangements, deals or agreements contemplated to reduce pressure on Iran.”

The Texas Republican also asked Ms Leaf to hand over internal State Department documents that he said asked its employees to refer to the Abraham Accords as “normalisation agreements” instead of by their name.

Mr Cruz has repeatedly accused Biden administration officials of refusing to refer to the Abraham Accords by name as a way of discrediting former president Donald Trump's success in brokering the normalisation agreements.

But Secretary of State Antony Blinken and several other State Department officials used the term Abraham Accords multiple times last week during a trilateral meeting the secretary hosted with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, the UAE's Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, and Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.

Ms Leaf said that, as a nominee, she lacked the authority to provide the documents but promised to do so upon taking office.

Lastly, Mr Cruz asked Ms Leaf for more information on the 16 Egyptian prisoners that the Biden administration is pressuring Cairo to release as a condition for unlocking $130 million in frozen US military aid.

The senator inquired as to whether the prisoners belong to “groups that promote Islamist ideologies, distribute anti-Semitic materials or distribute political disinformation” and whether they would receive US visas upon their release.

Democrat Chris Murphy, the chairman of the Senate Middle East panel, accused Mr Cruz of “political grandstanding that leaves America vulnerable without a top diplomat in the Middle East".

Mr Cruz has also leveraged his spot on the Foreign Relations Committee to hold up several other State Department nominees over the Biden administration’s refusal to place sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has managed to confirm some of those nominees in recent weeks, but the holds have forced Democrats to eat up limited time on the Senate floor.

Still, Mr Cruz did allow the committee to vote on the nominations of former Republican senator Jeff Flake to serve as ambassador to Turkey and Morgan Stanley vice chairman Thomas Nides as ambassador to Israel.

Both Mr Flake and Mr Nides advanced easily out of the committee by voice vote alongside several other State Department nominees.

Mr Cruz allowed the voice vote on Mr Nides to proceed, but he voted against his nomination as well as several others. He did vote in favour of the nomination of Mr Flake, a Republican.

Marco Rubio, a Republican senator who voted against advancing all the State Department nominees on the committee's list, was the only other senator to vote against the Nides nomination.

Now that they have advanced out of the committee, the full Senate is expected to easily confirm Mr Flake and Mr Nides — provided they are not subject to any holds themselves on the Senate floor.

But the State Department will remain without a top Middle East diplomat as long as Ms Leaf’s nomination remains held up in the Senate.

Updated: October 19, 2021, 9:00 PM