U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will allow arms sales to proceed to Middle East ally Bahrain without human rights guarantees, reversing an Obama administration policy that placed conditions on military aid to the Persian Gulf monarchy.
The State Department notified Congress that it has lifted the restrictions to green light a $2.8 billion sale of F-16 fighter jets and other arms, The New York Times reported. The deal is part of an effort to shore up the tenuous relationship between Washington and Bahrain, a key Arab ally that hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which is responsible for containing Iran and safeguarding oil shipments in the strategically vital Persian Gulf.
Tillerson’s decision comes after debate with leaders in Congress and administration officials about how to deal with Bahrain’s Sunni-dominated government in light of its ongoing crackdown of political dissidents and the country’s Shiite minority. The move suggests that the Trump administration is willing to set aside human rights concerns when dealing with strategically important partners.
The State Department has not yet commented publicly on the policy change, but Tillerson has said the U.S. would more aggressively pursue its own interests in keeping with President Trump’s “America First” foreign policy outlook. Administration officials hope the sale will draw Bahrain closer to the U.S., which sees the Gulf Arab states as critical to containing Iran’s ambitions in the region. (RELATED: Iran Opens The Door For Russia To Challenge Washington)
Congressional Republicans, including Bob Corker, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are likely to welcome the State Department’s approach. He said Wednesday that arms sales should be based primarily on U.S. strategic priorities, not on concerns over allies’ undesirable domestic behavior.
“This type of conditionality would be unprecedented and counterproductive to maintaining security cooperation and ultimately addressing human rights issues,” Corker said in a statement. “There are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies than publicly conditioning weapons transfers in this manner.”
Wednesday’s announcement initiates a 40-day review by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. A second 30-day review is also required before the sale can move forward.
Human Rights Watch criticized the policy change and called on Congress to restore the Obama administration preconditions.
“If they lift the conditions, they’re saying we don’t think you need to reform, and the Bahrainis have a free pass to continue cracking down,” Sarah Margon, HRW’s Washington director, told TheNYT.
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