The US Senate on June 13 fell just four votes short of blocking arms sales to Saudi Arabia in a sign of growing unease about US involvement in the sectarian proxy war between Riyadh and Tehran.
Senators voted 53-47 against a motion from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., that would have prohibited the Donald Trump administration from selling $500 million worth of precision-guided munitions for the kingdom’s campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. Last year, while Barack Obama was still president, a similar proposal to stop the sale of battle tanks to the Saudis only garnered 27 votes.
“I think this big vote against the arms sale is a reaction to a changed policy on Saudi Arabia,” Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., told Al-Monitor. “Trump has embraced the Saudis in a way that is not helpful to the US national security interest and a lot of members reject that.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee member was one of the original co-sponsors of the resolution, which garnered the support of 43 Democrats and four Republicans. He pointed out that while Obama sold more weapons to the Saudis than all previous presidents combined, it came with an expectation that the Saudis’ fight for regional dominance with Iran would be curtailed.
“The Obama administration’s support for Saudi Arabia came with conditions. It appears that there are zero conditions on Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia,” Murphy said. “I think it’s deeply harmful to the US national security for us to be so definitively taking the Sunni side of the broadening set of proxy wars between the Saudis and the Iranians.”
Paul made essentially the same argument. Riyadh’s supporters, he said on the Senate floor, “will come here and they’ll say, ‘It’s about Iran, and we have to fight Iran everywhere.’ Guess what? This may make the situation with Iran worse. What do you think Iran thinks when Saudi Arabia gets weapons? They think to themselves, if the Saudis are getting more, we need more.”
Obama notably negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran even as he promised to defend America’s Gulf allies against their rival. Trump by contrast has sided squarely with Saudi Arabia, even making Riyadh his first official stop as president.
“From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region,” Trump told assembled Sunni Arab leaders during his visit to Saudi Arabia last month. “It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many leaders and nations in this very room.”
Riyadh was ecstatic. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir, the former ambassador to Washington, celebrated an “extremely, extremely productive and historic visit.”
Just weeks later, Saudi Arabia and several of its Arab allies precipitated a regional crisis by cutting off ties with Qatar over its support for political Islamists and nonconfrontational approach to Iran. Some critics argue that Trump’s approach has emboldened Riyadh to forgo diplomacy in favor of a more forceful approach, whether in Qatar or in Yemen.
“The administration’s decision to proceed with the sale of precision-guided munitions, absent leadership to push all parties toward a political process for a negotiated settlement, including Saudi Arabia, sends the absolutely wrong signal to our partners and our adversaries,” the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Ben Cardin, D-Md., said in a June 7 statement endorsing the Paul bill.
The bill’s supporters got another big boost earlier this week when Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., got onboard.
“The human rights and humanitarian concerns have been well documented and are important,” Schumer said in a statement to reporters June 12. “Of equal concern to me is that the Saudi government continues to aid and abet terrorism via its relationship with Wahhabism and the funding of schools that spread extremist propaganda throughout the world.”
For others, the sectarian conflict is exactly the right reason for allowing the sale to proceed.
“In Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are fighting against the Iranian proxy Houthi forces,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on the Senate floor ahead of the vote. “As the counter ISIL [Islamic State] coalition continues to make gains in Mosul and Raqqa, Iranian-supported militias in Iraq are posturing to create a land bridge through Iraq and into Syria. This land bridge could ultimately extend to Lebanon and improve Iran’s support for Hezbollah. Now is not the time to undermine one of our critical allies in the Arab world by disapproving part of an arms sales package that will improve Saudi capabilities.”
That attitude, Murphy worries, could inevitably draw the United States into another Middle East war.
“Remember, in the past 30 days, we’ve had three different military confrontations in Syria between US forces and Iranian-aligned forces, including shooting down an Iranian-made drone,” he told Al-Monitor. “So this isn’t theoretical. There’s a real worry that we are quickly tiptoeing into a military conflict with Iran.”