WASHINGTON – The Democratic-led Congress is unlikely to block U.S. plans to sell $123 million worth of sophisticated precision-guided bomb technology to Saudi Arabia, despite concerns from some members that the systems could be used against Israel.
The Bush administration on Monday officially notified Congress of its intent to sell the bomb-delivery systems as part of a multibillion-dollar arms package to bolster the defense of U.S. allies in the Gulf.
Rep. Tom Lantos, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, does not intend consider a resolution of disapproval, said spokesman Lynne Weil. Otherwise, Lantos declined to comment.
The arms deal creates a dilemma for lawmakers, especially for Democrats eager to challenge President Bush's handling of foreign policy. At the same time, they see Saudi Arabia's cooperation as crucial to the War on Terror and in deterring aggression from Iran.
Last year, when details of the deal were first made public, Lantos said he wanted to be sure the technology given to the Saudis was defensive in nature. At the same he added, "We welcome the development that the Saudis and other Gulf states have recognized that a nuclear weapons-equipped Iran is a mortal threat to them."
Timed to coincide with President Bush's trip to Saudi Arabia, the notification opens a 30-day window during which lawmakers can object to the sale, which envisions the transfer of 900 Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, to the Saudis, the State Department said.
The proposed deal follows notification on five other packages to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait, and brings to $11.5 billion the amount of advanced U.S. weaponry, including Patriot missiles, provided to friendly Arab nations under the Gulf Security Dialogue, spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
Administration officials say the total amount of sales as part of the dialogue is estimated at $20 billion, but they also have cautioned that the figure is subject to what equipment the receiving countries actually purchase.
The sale is a key element in the U.S. strategy to bolster the defenses of its Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and other oil-producing majority Sunni Muslim Gulf nations against threats from Shiite Iran.
A principal aim of Bush's Mideast visit is to convince the Saudi leadership as well as those in Kuwait, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates that he remains committed to preventing Iran from destabilizing the region, despite U.S. intelligence findings that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons development in 2003.
Notifications to Congress of specific transactions are made in "piecemeal" fashion, McCormack said. He added that the 30-day deadline for lawmakers to raise opposition to the previous five sales had passed.
The five earlier agreements included two sales to the United Arab Emirates for a Patriot missile system and support for an airborne early warning system; one to Kuwait for Patriot missile system upgrades and two to Saudi Arabia for "targeting pods" and upgrades to AWACs airborne warning and control aircraft.
Congress has already been briefed on the entire Gulf Security Dialogue arms package, which includes the sale of the Navy's Littoral Combat system as well as the JDAMs kits. During these meetings, the administration assured lawmakers that there would be proper restrictions on the JDAMs sale to ensure that the weapon would not pose a threat to Israel.
Members who still oppose it say they are concerned it would give Saudi Arabia a technical edge that could be used to attack Israel.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., said he will push for a resolution condemning the sale. His resolution already has some three dozen co-sponsors, although such a measure is unlikely to find the two-thirds majority in Congress needed to stop the sale.
Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, said the Israeli government would not comment on the arms deal.
Previously, Israel has indicated it does not oppose the deal and Washington plans to counterbalance the sales to Arab nations with $30 billion in military assistance to the Jewish state — a more than 25 percent increase over the next 10 years.
McCormack said the administration would not do anything that might jeopardize Israel's security or its "qualitative military edge" over its Arab neighbors.
"We've spent a lot of time ensuring that we abide by our commitments to a qualitative military edge for Israel," he said. "We are committed to maintaining that qualitative military edge for Israel."