Saudi jet fighters fly over Incirlik Air Base near Adana, southern Turkey, Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. 

US sales of missiles to Saudis signal business as usual — almost

The recent $650 million sale involves 280 air-to-air missiles known as AMRAAMs (advanced medium range air-to-air missiles) and their launch systems, to be used on Saudi fighter jets. It has raised a stir in foreign policy circles.

The World

Saudi jet fighters fly over Incirlik Air Base near Adana, southern Turkey, Feb. 26, 2016. 

AP

Last week, the Biden administration said it would sell $650 million worth of US-made missiles to Saudi Arabia. 

The approval reaffirms a long-standing business relationship between the United States, the world’s largest weapons maker, and Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s largest weapons customers. But the announcement seems to contradict a promise that President Joe Biden made on the campaign trail: to stop US support for the ruling family of Saudi Arabia.

Related: Oil giant Saudi Arabia says it wants to get to net-zero emissions by 2060. But critics question its roadmap.

In a televised debate in 2019, Biden said the Saudis must be held accountable for the humanitarian consequences of its war in Yemen, and for the state-sponsored murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. His plan, he said, was to make the Saudis “pay the price, and make them in fact the pariah that they are.”

Days after taking office, Biden echoed his campaign pledge, saying the US is ending all support for offensive operations in Yemen, including arms sales, in an effort to end the war and humanitarian crisis.

The recent sale involves 280 air-to-air missiles known as AMRAAMs (advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles) and their launch systems, to be used on Saudi fighter jets. It has raised a stir in foreign policy circles.

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“Last week’s offer of $650 million in air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia is the latest example of the Biden administration’s failure to fulfill its promises to change US policy towards that nation."

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program, Center for International Policy

“Last week’s offer of $650 million in air-to-air missiles to Saudi Arabia is the latest example of the Biden administration’s failure to fulfill its promises to change US policy towards that nation,” said William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy.

Hartung told The World that the administration has refused to use American leverage — in the form of a threat to cut off crucial US spare parts and sustainment for the Saudi military — to force Riyadh to end its devastating blockade on Yemen and move toward an inclusive peace agreement to end the war. 

“I think this is no time to be selling arms of any kind to Saudi Arabia, given its conduct in Yemen..."

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program, Center for International Policy

“I think this is no time to be selling arms of any kind to Saudi Arabia, given its conduct in Yemen,” Hartung said. “It's never really been held accountable for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, and it's doing a [maritime and air] blockade that's putting millions of Yemenis at risk. So, by selling arms at this moment, it's kind of an endorsement of Saudi conduct.”

The Biden administration has defended the sale as "fully consistent with the administration's pledge to lead with diplomacy to end the conflict in Yemen.” The air-to-air missiles ensure "Saudi Arabia has the means to defend itself from Iranian-backed Houthi air attacks," a State Department spokesperson said in a statement.

Hartung acknowledged that the current sale is primarily a defensive weapons system. These are missiles that are fired from Saudi aircraft at other aircraft, such as Houthi drones. But he notes that Biden has walked back a promise to hold the Saudis accountable for bad behavior.

Related: Yemen's most stable city threatened by Houthi takeover

“I think, basically, the administration is saying it fits their kind of new concept, which is different from what he said on the campaign trail that they sell what they call 'defensive' weapons and not "offensive" weapons. [But] a lot of weapons systems can be used in either mode.”

Observers see Biden treading a narrow line between supporting a longtime friend in the Middle East while still criticizing its policies. The war in Yemen is but one crisis in the region that the White House is watching.

“Iran is probably in the decision-making process for the missiles, given the high tension in the Gulf."

Bruce Riedel, Brookings Institution

“Iran is probably in the decision-making process for the missiles, given the high tension in the Gulf,” wrote Bruce Riedel of the Brookings Institution.

Jodi Vittori of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace agrees: “Certainly, this would be some leverage to try to get Iran back to the table when it comes to reinvigorating the JCPOA.”

The Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action (JCPOA), known also as the Iran nuclear deal, was abandoned by the Trump administration, which then approved a sale of precision-guided munitions that could be used by the Saudi air force to attack ground targets in Yemen — attacks that have resulted in civilian casualties and raised accusations of war crimes.

The sale just approved by the Biden White House shows that while the US is not supplying the Saudis with bombs, it is still ready to work with Saudi Arabia to keep the Houthis — and the Iranians — in check.

“Things like AMRAAM sales are a relatively safe way to do that as we go forward to the next round, hopefully, of a JCPOA,” Vittori added.