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former IAEA Director-General

Congress Slows Saudi Arms Sale
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Wade Boese

Stiff congressional opposition to a summer 2007 proposal to sell sophisticated munitions to Saudi Arabia led the Bush administration to delay moving ahead on the deal for months, setting up a possible early 2008 showdown between lawmakers and the White House. During the delay, Congress did not contest other proposed arms sales worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia and its neighbors.

Last July, the Bush administration announced plans to offer a broad package of arms to Saudi Arabia and the five other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The administration claimed the weapons would help bolster the countries against Iran and solidify their ties with the United States. (See ACT, September 2007. )

Administration officials anticipated the deals would be wrapped up quickly and ready for congressional review last September. The 1976 Arms Export Control Act requires most major arms sales valued at more than $14 million to be notified to Congress, which has 30 days to block a transaction. A higher $25 million notification threshold exists for deals with NATO members, Australia, Japan, and New Zealand, and Congress only receives 15 days to conduct a review. Two-thirds of each chamber would need to support a joint resolution of disapproval to protect against a presidential veto of a legislative arms sales rejection.

Some lawmakers did not wait for an official notification to protest. Led by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), 16 representatives announced July 31 that they would seek to block the reported inclusion of Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) in the package to Saudi Arabia. Those systems improve the accuracy of bombs by enabling them to be directed by satellites.

The initial dissent was followed quickly by a bipartisan August letter from 114 House members to President George W. Bush objecting to the JDAM sale and then a second opposition letter Nov. 15 signed by 188 representatives, many of whom had signed the earlier letter. Some lawmakers argued that Saudi Arabia is undeserving of advanced U.S. weapons for failing to crack down on anti-U.S. extremists, particularly those crossing into Iraq. Other legislators cautioned the arms might fall into the “wrong hands” and be turned against U.S. troops or allies, particularly Israel.

A third letter to Bush, signed by 117 House members and sent Nov. 16, called on the administration to hold off an official notification until January 2008 so Congress could conduct a full review. There had been an informal notice three days earlier that the administration would provide the notification in December when Congress is frequently out of session. The administration responded favorably, according to a Dec. 4 statement by Weiner’s office, informing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that a notification would be postponed. It was made Jan. 14, triggering the 30-day review period.

A Department of State official told Arms Control Today Jan. 3 that the administration was trying to respond to congressional concerns. Lawmakers contend that if the deal goes forward, there should be strict conditions and U.S. oversight to ensure that the weapons are not diverted or misused.

While rallying against the JDAM sale, lawmakers let some deals to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states proceed. During the last four months of 2007, the Pentagon notified Congress of possible arms sales worth $1.25 billion to Saudi Arabia, $2 billion to Kuwait, and almost $10.2 billion to the UAE. The deals with the UAE include that country’s first potential purchase of short- and medium-range anti-missile systems. Specifically, the UAE could receive up to 288 Patriot Advanced Capability-3 interceptors and nine firing units.

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Posted: January 25, 2008