The Trump administration has told Congress it plans to approve a multibillion-dollar sale of F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain without the human rights conditions imposed by the Obama government.
If finalised, the approval would allow the Gulf nation to purchase 19 jets from Maryland-based Lockheed Martin, plus improvements to other jets in Bahrain’s fleet.
Though Congress has opportunities to block the sale, it is unlikely it will do so, given the Republican majority’s strong support for the sale.
The decision is the latest signal that the Trump administration is prioritising support for Sunni-led countries seen as critical to opposing Iran’s influence in the region, over human rights issues Barack Obama had elevated.
Under Mr Obama, the US withdrew approval before the deal was finalised because it said Bahrain had not taken steps it had promised to improve human rights.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Bob Corker’s office said the committee was told on Wednesday by the State Department that it planned to proceed with the sale.
The notice triggers a 40-day “consultation” period in which committee staff can review a draft of the Bahrain approval, ask questions about the sale and raise any concerns.
Then the State Department will send a formal notification to Congress, setting off a final 30-day review period, during which Congress could pass a joint resolution or take other steps to stop the sale.
Lockheed had lobbied strenuously for the sale’s approval, even as rights groups and pro-democracy activists urged the administration not to jettison human rights conditions.
Brian Dooley of Washington-based group Human Rights First said decoupling the sale from such conditions would “encourage further repression” and fuel instability during a tense period for Bahrain.
“The sale will send exactly the wrong signal to the dictatorship: that the White House thinks the political crackdown is not just morally acceptable but also not dangerous, when in fact it’s what’s fuelling the country’s instability,” Mr Dooley said.
But Mr Corker praised the move and said the caveats would have been “unprecedented and counter-productive” for security and human rights.
“There are more effective ways to seek changes in partner policies than publicly conditioning weapons transfers in this manner,” he said in a statement.
Bahrain, home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet and an under-construction British naval base, is a predominantly Shiite island off the coast of Saudi Arabia ruled by a Sunni monarchy.
Government forces, with help from US allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, crushed a 2011 uprising by Shiites and others who sought more political power.
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