Biden administration stops transfer of F-35 jets to UAE, makes overture to Iran
President Joe Biden's administration on Wednesday signalled a fresh look at US policy in the Middle East, announcing reviews of massive arms packages for the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia as well as envisioning a slow return to diplomacy with Iran.
On his first full day on the job, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that his top priorities would include addressing the catastrophe for civilians in Yemen, where US ally Saudi Arabia has been bombarding Iranian-linked Houthi rebels.
"We've seen a campaign, led by Saudi Arabia, that has also contributed to what is by many estimates the worst humanitarian crisis in the world today, and that's saying something," Blinken told a news conference.
"It's vitally important even in the midst of this crisis that we do everything we can to get humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen, who are in desperate need," he said of the country where 80 percent of the 29 million people rely on aid to survive.
The State Department said it was temporarily pausing sales authorized by former president Donald Trump including munitions to Saudi Arabia and a $23 billion package of cutting-edge F-35 jets to the United Arab Emirates.
Blinken said that a review was routine for any new administration to ensure that a sale "advances our strategic objectives."
The United Arab Emirates is to be the first Arab nation to receive the versatile stealth-capable fighter-jets after it agreed to normalise relations with Israel - a normalisation that Blinken said he supports.
Yousef Al Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to Washington, said it had anticipated the review and defended the package as "a strong deterrent to aggression" - a veiled reference to Iran.
"It also enables the UAE to take on more of the regional burden for collective security, freeing US assets for other global challenges, a long-time bipartisan US priority."
Lawmakers of Biden's Democratic Party had voiced misgivings over the deal, fearing it would set off an arms race, but failed to block the sale while Trump was in office.
Annelle Sheline, research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a Washington think tank critical of military intervention, said the review was "encouraging" and that it was a surprise that the UAE, not only Saudi Arabia, was affected.
"It may reflect awareness by the Biden administration that although the UAE has conducted a skillful PR campaign, they are equally to blame for the misery in Yemen, and have in fact pursued a more aggressive foreign policy than the Saudis have, such as in Libya," she said.
Call on Iran to act first
Blinken has already pledged to end military support for the Saudi campaign and to revisit the designation of the Houthi rebels as terrorists -- a last-minute move by his predecessor Mike Pompeo that aid groups say will criminalize vital work, as the insurgents are a de facto government.
Pompeo had pointed to the Houthis' ties to Iran, an arch-nemesis for the Trump administration, which piled sanctions against the Iranian clerical regime.
Blinken confirmed that the Biden administration wants to return to the 2015 nuclear deal trashed by Trump -- but rejected Iranian calls to act first.
"Iran is out of compliance on a number of fronts. And it would take some time, should it make the decision to do so, for it to come back into compliance and time for us then to assess whether it was meeting its obligations," Blinken said.
"We're not there yet, to say the least."
Iran has reduced compliance with the nuclear deal as a pressure tactic after Trump imposed sanctions, which were opposed by US allies in Europe as well as Russia and China.
Iranian officials fear that the United States -- where Trump's Republican Party, narrowly in the minority in Congress, remains adamantly opposed to the nuclear deal -- will not fulfil sanctions relief even if Tehran goes ahead.
Israel in turn is strongly critical of the nuclear deal, with its military chief publicly warning this week that military plans are being drawn up to use if needed.