WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A top U.S. Senate Democrat said on Thursday he cannot support for now a Trump administration plan to sell high-tech munitions to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over concerns about the war in Yemen, a decision that could derail the sale.
Senator Bob Menendez, ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration had not satisfied his concerns about the sale to members of a Saudi-led coalition of thousands of precision-guided munitions, or PGMs, which could be used to kill Yemeni civilians.
His position could sink the deal for Raytheon Co,the largest maker of the PGMs in the United States.
“I remind you that the American public has a right to insist that the sales of U.S. weapons to foreign governments – especially those of this magnitude and lethality – are consistent with U.S. values and national security objectives,” Menendez said in a letter.
“The Congress, as the direct representative of the American public, is charged with exercising effective oversight of such sales,” he said in the letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
Reuters reported in May that President Donald Trump’s administration had asked Congress to review the sale of more than 120,000 precision-guided munitions to the two U.S. Gulf allies.
While the value of the transactions could not be determined, past PGM sales have been worth hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
The Gulf Arab states have been battling since 2015 to restore a government driven out by the Houthis, Shi’ite Muslim fighters that Yemen’s neighbors view as agents of Iran.
The war has killed more than 10,000 people and created the world’s most urgent humanitarian emergency, with 22 million Yemenis dependent on aid and 8.4 million at risk of starving.
Concern in the U.S. Congress, and internationally, has intensified since June 12, when the coalition launched an offensive to drive the Houthis from the port of Hodeidah.
Menendez said information the Trump administration had provided about the latest PGM sales so far had not adequately
addressed bipartisan concerns about whether the weapons would be used to kill civilians.
He asked for more briefings, addressing civilian casualties in Yemen, U.S. refueling support for the Saudi-led coalition and a more general U.S. policy in Yemen.
Major U.S. arms deals with foreign governments are subject to an informal preliminary review by the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs Committees before a formal 30-day review process in which lawmakers can try to pass legislation barring a sale.
While most are approved routinely, some objections have led to deals being canceled, or delayed for months.
Senator Bob Corker, the Republican Foreign Relations chairman, blocked major arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and other Gulf nations for much of last year over a dispute with Qatar, lifting his “hold” only early this year.
Trump views weapons sales as an important way to create jobs in the United States and increase the country’s international influence. He could decide to disregard Congress’ objections, but that could galvanize support for any move to pass legislation to block it.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell