WASHINGTON — An influential Republican senator said Monday that he'll withhold approval of U.S. weapons sales to several Middle Eastern allies until there is a clear path for settling a diplomatic crisis with Qatar.
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, said in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that "recent disputes" among members of the Gulf Cooperation Council undermine efforts to combat the Islamic State and counter Iran.
The council is an alliance of six Middle Eastern countries, including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain.
Riyadh, along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt, cut ties with Qatar over allegations that it funds terrorism — an accusation Doha rejects but that President Donald Trump has echoed. The move has left Qatar under a de facto blockade by its neighbors.
Corker said members of the Gulf council, in the wake of a summit in Saudi Arabia last month with Trump, "chose to devolve into conflict" instead of seeking to ease regional tension and expand their security cooperation.
"All countries in the region need to do more to combat terrorism, but recent disputes among the GCC countries only serve to hurt efforts to fight (the Islamic State) and counter Iran," Corker wrote.
Once Congress is formally notified by the State Department of the sale of weapons to an ally, lawmakers typically have 30 days to review the transaction. During that period they could pass a joint resolution or take other steps to stop the sale. If they take no action, the sale moves forward.
As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Corker plays a central role in these sales. He told Tillerson that "before we provide any further clearances during the informal review period on sales of lethal military equipment to the GCC states, we need a better understanding of the path to resolve the current dispute and reunify" the alliance.
Tillerson said in a statement Sunday that several of the demands Saudi Arabia and the other countries have placed on Qatar "will be very difficult to meet." They've insisted that their Persian Gulf neighbor shutter Al-Jazeera, cut back diplomatic ties to Iran and sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood.
Tillerson didn't reject the list outright, however. He said the demands include major areas that "provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution." He called for Qatar and the other Arab countries to "sit together" to work through the list. Tillerson also said a "lowering of rhetoric would also help ease the tension."
The Senate earlier this month narrowly rejected a bipartisan attempt to rebuke Saudi Arabia and reject Trump's plan to sell the kingdom more than $500 million in precision-guided munitions. The precision munitions are part of Trump's proposed $110 billion arms package to Riyadh, which the administration said would create U.S. jobs while also improving a key ally's military capability.
Corker backed the sale.