Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s approval this week of the measure, which officials say needs White House backing to go into effect, provides an early indication of the new administration’s more Saudi-friendly approach to the conflict in Yemen and a sign of its more hawkish stance on Iran.
It also signals a break with an approach the previous administration hoped would limit civilian deaths in a conflict that has pushed Yemen to the brink of widespread famine but that Persian Gulf ally Saudi Arabia has cast as a battle against the spread of Iranian influence across the Middle East.
The move takes place as the Trump administration considers its approach to the Yemeni war, which has pitted U.S.- and Saudi-backed Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi against an alliance of former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh and Shiite Houthi rebels. Officials in Riyadh allege that the Houthis have received substantial support from Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival, Iran.
While the U.S. military has provided support to the Saudi-led air campaign since 2015, including aerial refueling for Saudi jets and a U.S. advisory mission in the Saudi operations headquarters, the Obama administration sought to scale back that support last year amid alleged Saudi strikes on civilian targets.
Despite Saudi hopes that the conflict would quickly restore Hadi to power, it is now approaching its third year. As of January, the conflict had led to the deaths of at least 10,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.
“It has become a quagmire in which we were deeply involved but had very little influence,” said Tom Malinowski, who served as the top human rights official at the State Department under President Barack Obama. “That was not a good deal for the United States.”
Pressure increased on the Obama administration in October, when Saudi jets attacked a Yemeni funeral hall, killing more than 100 people. At the end of a review prompted by that strike, the Obama White House made the decision to halt the planned sale of roughly $390 million worth of precision munitions guidance systems to the kingdom.
At the same time, officials reaffirmed other kinds of military support, part of a carrot-and-stick approach reflecting U.S. eagerness to smooth things over with a crucial Middle Eastern ally that was sharply critical of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran.
Now, President Trump, who has also voiced opposition to the nuclear deal, has an opportunity to recalibrate that support and reset ties with Riyadh.
An ongoing Yemen policy review is also a chance for Trump to demonstrate a tougher approach to Iran and its activities throughout the Middle East. Trump and some of his top advisers, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, have called Tehran a chief threat to American security.
A senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the Trump administration hopes to roll back Iranian influence in large part in Yemen.
“We’ll be looking for ways to blunt Iranian malign influence in the region. And we’ll be looking for all the tools that the U.S. government has,” the official said. “In that context, I think you have to look at Yemen.”
Trump has already supported the expansion of a separate military campaign in Yemen, one that U.S. forces are now waging against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), a potent militant group that has grown stronger amid Yemen's instability.
It is not yet known how the new administration will approach the beleaguered Yemen peace process, one that Tillerson’s predecessor, John F. Kerry, tried unsuccessfully to push toward a Saudi-Houthi deal.
“If the United States still hopes to help broker a nonmilitary end to the conflict, it is critical that it draws bright distinctions between our counter-AQAP efforts in southern Yemen, the delivery of new [arms], and the coalition’s efforts in Yemen,” said Eric Pelofsky, who served as senior director for North Africa and Yemen in the Obama White House, cautioning that the precision weapons and the expanding counterterrorism effort could be conflated with actions by the Saudi-led coalition the United States may or may not support.
Gerald M. Feierstein, a former U.S. ambassador to Yemen, said that allowing Saudi Arabia to purchase the precision weapons would make sense. “My own view is that we should be able to sell these,” said Feierstein, who now directs the Center for Gulf Affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Feierstein and other advocates of the sale argue that precision munitions are preferable to unguided or “dumb” bombs and are less likely to cause civilian casualties when used properly.
“We should provide more help, more support, to get them to stop doing stupid things,” Feierstein said. “We should not cut off all the tools that would enable them to do this the right way.”
U.S. officials disagree over whether the weapons and greater hands-on support for the Saudi air campaign would result in diminished danger to civilians, arguing that the larger problem has been Riyadh’s choice of targets.
“Urging the Saudis to end the war while continuing to provide the weapons they’re using is like trying to persuade a friend not to rob a bank while driving his getaway car,” Malinowski said.
The decision last year to suspend the sale of the weapons did not mean that Saudi Arabia, which officials said has a stockpile of those arms, was forced to switch immediately to unguided munitions.
A spokesman for the Saudi military coalition did not respond to a request for comment.
If the White House gives its blessing to the new State Department position, the administration would then notify Congress about its intent to move forward with the sale. It could encounter resistance on Capitol Hill.
“If you are interested in radicalizing the Yemeni population against the United States and pushing them into al-Qaeda’s arms, then continue to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “The Saudis are deliberately going after civilian targets.”
Last fall, Murphy was the co-sponsor of a measure that would have blocked a separate sale of Abrams main battle tanks to Saudi Arabia. While the measure did not pass, it was a rare public sign of frustration with an allied nation that has been an important customer for U.S. defense companies.
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), another critic of U.S. policy on Yemen, said that a proposed sale without proof of altered conditions in the protracted conflict would face “vociferous, bipartisan opposition in Congress.”
Greg Jaffe and Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.