US diplomat cites Iran threat in defence of Saudi arms sales
A top US diplomat has said the threat from Iran has made it necessary for the Trump administration to bypass Congress and press ahead with multibillion-dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, despite growing bipartisan opposition from legislators.
The decision, which was announced by secretary of state Mike Pompeo last month, activated rarely used emergency powers to allow the US to proceed with 22 sales of planned precision bombs worth $8.1bn to those two countries without fear of Congress blocking the measure.
Speaking at a hearing before the House of Representatives foreign affairs committee on Wednesday, Clarke Cooper, assistant secretary at the bureau of political-military affairs at the state department, said the decision was made partly because of the “significant increase in the intelligence threat streams related to Iran”.
The state department’s manoeuvre has added to the growing anger among legislators over the Trump administration’s staunch support for Saudi Arabia, even in the wake of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing, and set the scene for another battle between Congress and the White House.
Eliot Engel, the foreign affairs committee’s Democratic chairman, said the acceleration of the sales was an abuse of the administration’s power and a “fiasco”. “They employed an obscure and rarely used provision of the law to declare a phoney emergency, ram these sales through, and undercut Congress’s ability to carry out its oversight role,” said Mr Engel.
Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the foreign affairs committee, said that while he recognised the need to support Saudi Arabia, he had “an issue” with the bypassing of the usual process for arms sales.
In response to the proposed arms sales, a bipartisan group of senators including Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, and four Republican legislators — Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul, Todd Young and Mike Lee — have issued 22 joint resolutions of disapproval.
With all 47 Democrats expected to support the resolution, the support of four Republican senators would allow the resolutions to pass the Senate with a simple majority.
Mr Menendez said Mr Pompeo was “abusing” the emergency powers and had broken the arms sales process. “The Trump administration’s effort to sell billions of US weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates is yet another example of an end-run around Congress and a disregard for human rights,” he added.
Mr Lee said the move undermined Congress. “This rarely used emergency loophole highlights the unfortunate reality that Congress has ceded too much authority to the executive branch,” said Mr Lee.
Mr Graham said he expected to see strong bipartisan support for the resolutions. “While I understand that Saudi Arabia is a strategic ally, the behaviour of Mohammed bin Salman cannot be ignored,” he said.
Separately, Mr Young and Chris Murphy, a Democratic senator from Connecticut, have introduced a resolution to request a report from the administration on Saudi human rights abuses. “There is a limited availability for the administration to sell arms quickly when there is a genuine emergency, but this is fabricated,” said Mr Murphy.
Both the House and Senate have passed measures calling for an end to US military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, prompting Donald Trump to issue the second veto of his presidency in April. In a letter to senators last month, Mr Trump branded it “an unnecessary, dangerous attempt to weaken my constitutional authorities”.
Despite longstanding opposition to US support for Saudi in Yemen, administration officials have argued that Saudi is an important ally in countering Iran.
Mr Pompeo said in announcing the administration’s decision last month that the arms sales were being waved through to help “deter Iranian aggression and build partner self-defence capacity”, arguing that delaying the shipment could lead to “degraded systems” and weaken the military capabilities of Saudi and the UAE.
Speaking before the House foreign affairs committee on Wednesday, Mr Cooper said the arms sale was intended to be “a loud and clear message to Iran that we stand by our regional partners”, according to his prepared testimony.