Bipartisan group of senators introduce bill to stop Trump from allowing drone sales to Saudis, fearing an arms race with Iran

WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 20: President Donald Trump (R) holds up a chart of military hardware sales as he meets with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Oval Office at the White House on March 20, 2018 in Washington, D.C. Kevin Dietsch-Pool/Getty Images
  • Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy and a bipartisan group of his colleagues just introduced legislation aiming to block President Donald Trump from allowing the sale of armed drones to the Saudis.
  • The senators are concerned selling weaponised drones to the Saudis could exacerbate the Yemen conflict and fuel an arms race with Iran.
  • “Do we really want a Middle East in which Iranian and Saudi drones are flying all over the region? That sounds like a nightmare,” Murphy told Insider.
  • The Trump administration in late July announced it would bypass a 1987 arms control pact in order to expand weaponised drone sales.

A bipartisan group of senators on Thursday introduced legislation to block the Trump administration from allowing the sale of weaponised drones to countries like Saudi Arabia, fearing it would exacerbate the devastating Yemen conflict while fuelling an arms race with Iran.

“We are loading up our Gulf allies with weapons, and that has the consequence of fuelling an arms race in the region. Every time we sell something to the Saudis, the Iranians go and try to obtain a version of the same thing,” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, a top lawmaker on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sponsor of the bill, told Insider.

“Do we really want a Middle East in which Iranian and Saudi drones are flying all over the region? That sounds like a nightmare,” Murphy added.

The legislation would block the sale of advanced weaponised drones to countries the US is not closely allied with, excluding governments of countries of fellow NATO members, in addition to Australia, Israel, New Zealand, South Korea, and Japan.

GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, GOP Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware are co-sponsors of the legislation.

The bipartisan group introduced the bill not long after the Trump administration announced it would bypass a decades-old arms control pact in order to expand the sale weaponised drones.

The 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which the US played a key role in establishing, is not legally binding but is generally adhered to by its 35 members. Clauses in the agreement prohibit the sale of large, advanced armed drones.

“This is an international agreement that stops countries from selling lethal weapons systems to countries like Iran and North Korea,” Murphy told Insider over the phone last week while in the process of crafting the legislation.

“If the US walks away from the MTCR, then other countries are going to feel less restraint in selling weapons to some really bad actors like the Iranians and North Koreans,” the Connecticut Democrat added.

The US has already offered significant levels of support to the Saudi-led coalition as it wages a brutal war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, which has fostered a devastating humanitarian crisis and sparked bipartisan concerns in Washington.

Murphy has been among the most vocal proponents in Congress of reassessing the US-Saudi relationship, especially with respect to arms sales and in relation to the Yemen conflict.

The senator said he cannot image a “more dangerous idea” tha selling Reaper drones in the Middle East given the irresponsible ways in which the Saudis have acted with the weapons already sold to it by the US.

“Nearly 10,000 civilians in Yemen have been killed by Saudi fighter jets dropping bombs on churches, hospitals, and schools,” Murphy added. “Why on earth, given the Saudi’s miserable record of killing civilians in Yemen, would we want to make it easier for them to kill more civilians?”

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Murphy is also concerned that the technology could be passed along to extremists in the region, while warning that the “risk calculation” of dropping a bomb from a drone is “fundamentally different” than when dropping a bomb from a plane.

“The US, even with all of our procedures in place, still kills the wrong person with drones – in some places 80% of the time,” Murphy said. “These drones that can be controlled from an air-conditioned office building with a joystick end up getting used much more irresponsibly than do smart bombs that require a human being to fly into contested territory to release.”

Top advisers to President Donald Trump, such as White House trade adviser Peter Navarro, have fervently advocated for expanding arms sales while citing the need to compete with China, which is not a member of the MTCR and has been selling armed drones to US allies in the Middle East.

Murphy adamantly rejected this position, characterising it as incompatible with the national security goals of the US.

“If China decides to sell chemical weapons, that doesn’t obligate the US to start selling chemical weapons. We are not obligated to replicate irresponsible decisions made by the Chinese just because it might end up with a Chinese defence firm making a little bit more money,” the senator said. “This argument that if we don’t sell it to country x then the Chinese will is an invitation to fall into a national security abyss.”

The Connecticut senator portrayed the recent push to expand armed drone sales as the latest example of Trump capitulating to the Saudis and following their “orders.”

“Apparently, the Saudis called and asked for weaponised drones and Trump said ‘yes,'” Murphy said.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment from Insider.

Trump has rejected calls in Congress for the US to reevaluate its relationship with the Saudis, with the president often citing (and exagerrating) the benefit of arms sales. The Trump administration’s support for the Saudis has remained unwavering, even after the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and despite global outcry over the Yemen war.