The rare decision, a fallout of last year’s Khashoggi killing, comes as tensions rise with Iran.
Trump administration officials told lawmakers they would bypass Congressional approval and invoke a rarely used provision in the Arms Export Control Act to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's top Democrat said Friday.
The move would green-light 22 arms deals currently blocked by Congress. The weapons under scrutiny include helicopters and other aircraft, precision-guided munitions, and intelligence equipment , a U.S. official said Friday afternoon. Those include RQ-21 Blackjack surveillance drones and Javelin anti-tank missiles, CNN reported.
Training for Saudi and UAE military personnel is also part of the 22 deals, the U.S. official said. Collectively, the sales and training are worth about $8 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.
The administration told lawmakers that threats from Iran prompted it to use emergency measures to advance the stalled arms sales, said Sen, Robert Menendez, D-N.J., ranking member of committee.
Lawmakers have opposed the deals amid reports of widespread civilian deaths from the U.S.-assisted Saudi and UAE bombing campaign in Yemen against Iran-backed insurgents, and the Saudi regime’s role in the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
“I have kept the Trump administration from selling tens of thousands of precision-guided bombs to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates until they could prove that U.S. assistance and arms sales were improving Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s respect for human rights in Yemen and were in line with U.S. national security interests and values,” Menendez said.
The State Department, which approves the executive branch’s foreign military sales, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Since Trump took office, his administration has approved more than $20 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and nearly $5 billion to UAE. The State-approved sales include munitions, missile interceptors, surveillance aerostats, maintenance, spare parts and training.
This is not the first time the executive branch has sidestepped Congress’ attempt to block a foreign arms sale. The Carter administration used the provision in 1979 to sell arms to Yemen and the Reagan administration in 1984 sold Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia, said Rachel Stohl, head of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center. It’s difficult for lawmakers to block foreign arms sales, but often they can slow them, much like they’ve done with recent sales to Saudi and UAE.
“[Congress] might have the votes for a resolution of disapproval for the Saudi sale, [but] they probably would not for a UAE sale,” Stohl said.
Politically, the Trump administration going around lawmakers “is bigger than the arms sales,” she said, and represents the policy power struggle between the White House and Congress over two key Middle East allies.
“There is no new ‘emergency’ reason to sell bombs to the Saudis to drop in Yemen, and doing so only perpetuates the humanitarian crisis there,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., said Friday. “This sets an incredibly dangerous precedent that future presidents can use to sell weapons without a check from Congress.”