Saudi Arms Deal Moves Forward

Matt Sugrue

A $60 billion U.S. arms sale to Saudi Arabia passed a key deadline last month without legislators blocking the deal although 198 House members signed a letter raising questions about it.

The letter, coordinated by House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the panel’s ranking member, was sent to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates nine days before the expiration of the legally required congressional review period.

In the Nov. 10 letter, legislators questioned “the rationale for a sale of such magnitude” to Saudi Arabia, citing concerns about the sale’s impact on regional stability and its challenge to Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME).

The letter also indicated doubts about Saudi Arabia’s proliferation credentials. “What steps has Saudi Arabia taken to support U.S. counterproliferation efforts, and to substantially improve their own non-proliferation record?” the letter asks.

Clinton and Gates responded to the questions in a letter dated Nov. 16, defending Saudi counterproliferation efforts. They argued that Saudi Arabia “has been responsive to UNSCR [UN Security Council Resolution] 1540 reporting requirements” and pointed to Riyadh hosting a December 2010 Gulf Cooperation Council workshop devoted to Resolution 1540 issues. That 2004 binding UN resolution requires member states to take effective measures against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

They described Saudi cooperation on nuclear energy as positive, identifying a 2008 memorandum of understanding that “contains a statement of intent by Saudi Arabia to rely on the international market for fuel cycle services as an alternative to the pursuit of enrichment or reprocessing capabilities.”

Gates and Clinton also identified border and trade control issues as an important area of ongoing cooperation. In January 2011, a senior Saudi delegation is expected to visit Washington to discuss the next steps on these topics, according to the letter.

The secretaries’ response addressed concerns that the U.S.-Saudi sale will undermine Israel’s QME. “We concluded, as required by law and after a thorough interagency assessment, that this sale will not negatively impact Israel’s security interests or its QME,” the letter states.

The Obama administration provided formal notification to Congress on Oct. 20, which marked the start of the 30 calendar days mandated by the Arms Export Control Act for legislators to review such deals.

On Nov. 18, Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) introduced a joint resolution (H.J. Res. 99) in an attempt block the sale. Congress did not act on the resolution, which had two co-sponsors, Reps. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) and Christopher Carney (D-Pa.).

The deal includes 84 F-15SA tactical fighters, the upgrade of Saudi Arabia’s existing fleet of 70 F-15Ss to the F-15SA configuration, 70 Apache Longbow attack helicopters, 72 Blackhawk helicopters, and additional light attack helicopters and trainers.

The sale also includes munitions: 500 AIM-120C/7 advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles, 1,000 joint direct attack munitions (JDAMs), more than 2,000 additional laser- and GPS-guided bombs, more than 4,000 Hellfire missiles, and 1,300 cluster bombs. The export of the sensor-fused cluster bombs in the sale are permitted under U.S. policy, but prohibited by the Convention on Cluster Munitions. (See ACT, September 2008.) Neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia is a party to that treaty.

During an Oct. 20 press briefing announcing the sale, Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro stated that the “final amount of the sale may well be less than the not-to-exceed estimate” of $60 billion.

Iran and Yemen

Shapiro and Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Alexander Vershbow also told reporters that Yemen and Iran factored into the negotiations over the sale.

Vershbow said some of the helicopters included in the deal have “potential roles” against a rebel group, the Houthis, that has been fighting the Yemeni government since 2004. Saudi Arabia has launched military actions against the group, which is based in northern Yemen. Yemen has claimed that the Houthis receive support from outside sources, primarily Tehran. Iran and the Houthis have denied that Iran provides funding to the rebel group.

In their letter, Clinton and Gates said, “Saudi Arabia faces an Iranian threat, including destabilizing actions in the region, and in the past year has faced Houthi attacks along its border with Yemen.”

Congress can block an arms sale by passing a joint resolution of disapproval, which prohibits the executive branch from issuing a formal letter of offer.

For most countries, including Saudi Arabia, congressional notification is required if the sale involves $14 million or more in “major defense equipment,” $50 million or more in “defense articles or services,” or $200 million or more in “design and construction services.”

After the 30-day notification period has passed, Congress can intervene in the arms sale by passing laws that block parts of the sale or the entire sale.

Previous Sales Challenged

Although Saudi Arabia has been a top customer for U.S. arms, its purchases have a history of spurring congressional resistance.

The Bush administration notified Congress in January 2008 of its intention to sell Saudi Arabia 900 JDAM bomb guidance kits. A joint resolution of disapproval was introduced into the House and the Senate, but did not pass.

The Senate resolution was introduced after the 30-day notification period for the JDAMs and encompassed three other U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. It tied them to Riyadh’s oil production, stating that, “despite the refusal of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to increase its oil production, the Administration continues to reward Saudi Arabia with lucrative arms deals.”

In 1986, Congress voted 73-22 for a joint resolution of disapproval (S.J. Res. 316) blocking the sale of Sidewinder, Harpoon, and Stinger missiles to Saudi Arabia. President Ronald Reagan vetoed the resolution, but agreed to remove the controversial Stinger missiles from the sale. Congress then voted 66-34 to override the veto, one vote short of the two-thirds majority needed.

This June, the Congressional Research Service reported that, between 1950 and 2006, the United States supplied Saudi Arabia with $62.7 billion worth of “weapons, military equipment, and related services through Foreign Military Sales.”

In the Nov. 10 letter, the legislators cited a September Government Accountability Office report that said the Department of State and the Department of Defense “did not consistently document how arms transfers to [Persian] Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals.”