Planned purchases of weapons from Russia by U.S. allies in the Middle East likely would violate U.S. sanctions against Moscow's defense sector, and Washington will work to discourage the sales, a top State Department nominee has said.
U.S. President Donald Trump's nominee for the State Department's top Middle East post said late on June 14 that he would work to dissuade countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Egypt from purchasing arms from Russia in deals that could trigger U.S. sanctions.
"I would work with our allies to dissuade them, or encourage them, to avoid military purchases that would be potentially sanctionable," David Schenker, the nominee to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said at his Senate confirmation hearing.
"In other words, I would tell Saudi Arabia not to do it," he said.
Senator Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, had asked Schenker whether he agreed that reported purchases of Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile systems by Saudi Arabia and Qatar would trigger U.S. sanctions under a sweeping sanctions law that Congress passed overwhelmingly last year.
Menendez also asked Schenker about reports that Egypt planned to buy 50 fighter jets and 46 helicopters from Russia.
"These entities who are our allies must understand that under U.S. law...the purchases of such systems ultimately are sanctionable, and we will press very hard on the question of pursuing those sanctions should they choose to do so, and I hope you'll communicate that in your role," Menendez said.
"Absolutely, senator," Schenker answered.
The sanctions law was passed last year to strike back at Moscow for its alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, its aggression in Ukraine, and involvement in the Syrian civil war.
Among its provisions is a bar on significant transactions with the Russian defense industry and intelligence organizations.
Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have reportedly been in talks to buy the S-400.
At the end of last month, Saudi Ambassador to Moscow Raid bin Khalid Krimli said that negotiations with Russia on the S-400 had been proceeding, but the sale had not been finalized.
Turkey, another U.S. ally and NATO partner in the region, has also been in the process of acquiring S-400s from Russia. Turkey's leaders have dismissed U.S. warnings that the sales could trigger sanctions.
The S-400 sales to Turkey have prompted a backlash in Congress, where lawmakers have introduced a bill barring the delivery of U.S. F-35 jet fighters that were purchased by Turkey unless Ankara cancels its deal with Russia.
Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli recently said Turkey had already paid $800 million out of $11 billion it contracted to pay for the F-35s, and slammed the congressional move as "blackmail."