Two weeks ago United States lawmakers were irate when Saudi Arabia, ignoring a US request, refused to order nearby Saudi warplanes to intercept the Iraqi fighter that attacked the USS Stark. The attack left 37 American sailors dead. Now, anger over the Stark affair and over what many say is inadequate Saudi support for US policy in the Middle East has prompted strong opposition in Congress to a Reagan administration plan to sell new arms to Riyadh.
US officials say the administration's request for 1,600 Maverick antitank missiles is part of an ongoing US defense commitment to Saudi Arabia. The missiles are needed, the officials say, to deter Iran from carrying its war against Iraq into the the Arabian Peninsula. The sale, worth $360 million, would enhance Saudi ground-attack capabilities, military experts say.
But congressional opponents of the sale argue that the Saudis already have air superiority in the Gulf, thanks to generous US arms sales in the past. And such sales, they say, have done little to win Saudi support for the Middle East peace process or for recent US efforts to protect Kuwaiti shipping in the Persian Gulf.
``The bottom line is that there is no adequate foreign-policy rationale for the sale at this time,'' says Rep. Mel Levine (D) of California, co-sponsor of a House resolution designed to block the sale.
The House resolution, which has attracted more than 100 signatures so far, is on its way to majority approval, its sponsors predict. Over half the Senate has already signed a similar resolution, co-sponsored by Bob Packwood (R) of Oregon and Alan Cranston (D) of California.
After the Stark attack, the administration dropped plans to sell 12 to 15 advanced F-15 fighter aircraft to the Saudis. But Reagan officials would still like to sell the missiles. They are a more advanced version of the Maverick approved for sale to the Saudis by Congress three years ago, but never delivered.
The timing of the request has raised some questions on Capitol Hill. One congressional source dismisses the sale as an effort to persuade the Saudis to play a larger supporting role in US efforts to protect merchant shipping in the Gulf.
The US recently agreed to put 11 Kuwaiti tankers under the protection of the US flag.
Representative Levine says the sale has a political motive as well.
``The administration is trying to pull its own chestnuts out of the fire,'' he says. ``Selling arms to Saudi Arabia is one way to restore the administration's credibility in the Arab world after the Iran-contra affair.''
Lawmakers are also upset over the administration's failure to abide by the terms of a 1976 agreement calling for a 20-day ``pre-notification'' period before officially submitting arms requests to Congress. US officials say pre-notification was unnecessary in this case, since the missiles were previously unopposed in Congress.
``If the question is why now, I guess the answer is why not,'' responds a US official. ``The Saudis say they need the missiles; we've planned on sending them [at] some time. We want to be able to keep the pipeline open and continue to send routine things without having it disrupted by events like the Stark [attack].''
Opponents of the plan say they are confident they can muster the two-thirds votes in both houses needed to override a presidential veto of a bill blocking the sale.
If Congress does not act within a 30-day formal notification period that began last week, the sale will go through.
US arms sales to Saudi Arabia go back to World War II, but the arms dealings took on larger significance in the late 1960s after Britain relinquished its strategic position in the Middle East.
The Nixon administration designated Saudi Arabia and Iran as the ``twin pillars'' of US interests in the region and in 1972 sold the Saudis 105 F-1 fighter jets. Since 1943, the US has sold or leased to the Saudis more than $50 billion worth of military support services and hardware.