Possible U.S. F-35 Sale to UAE Tests Israel Deal, Iran Tensions, Concerns over Yemen

President Donald Trump's push to sell advanced F-35 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates is testing the Arab country's recent peace deal with Israel, ongoing tensions with Iran and concerns over the humanitarian situation in Yemen, where the UAE is involved in an ongoing civil war.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord deferred all F-35-related questions to the State Department during a briefing Thursday with reporters, saying only she had "spent quite a bit of time in the region over the years in this role actively talking about F-16 upgrades, that has been an ongoing discussion that DSCA and the Air Force have worked on."

The prospect of selling such a state-of-the-art fighter jet to the UAE has been a contentious one, dividing U.S. allies and adversaries alike, even if Abu Dhabi didn't see the problem.

"We have legitimate requests that are there," UAE State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash said Thursday during a virtual talk with the Atlantic Council think tank. "We ought to get them."

f-35, us, air, force, jet, uae
A U.S. Air Force F-35A Lightning II assigned to the 34th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from Al Dhafra Air Base, United Arab Emirates, flies in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, December 17, 2019. Israel is only the Middle Eastern country to operate the advanced aircraft also used by U.S. allies in Western Europe and the Asia-Pacific region. Staff Sergeant Daniel Snider/U.S. Air Forces Central Command Public Affairs

The only Middle Eastern military country operating the F-35 is Israel, a close U.S. ally surrounded by Arab nations, most of which have never recognized the majority-Jewish state since the 1948 war that accompanied its founding. Utilizing its close relationship with the U.S., Israel has sought to maintain a qualitative edge in the region, with exclusive access to such advanced equipment as the F-35, which has only been sold to a handful of allied nations around the world.

But with the UAE agreeing to normalize ties with Israel in a historic agreement brokered by Trump, the UAE argued that there was no longer a need for the Israelis to have air superiority over them — and the F-35 was on the market.

"Now the whole idea of a state of belligerency or war with Israel will no longer exist," Gargash said, "so I think it should actually be easier."

But even on the heels of the UAE-Israel agreement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu objected to such an arms sale.

"The historic peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates did not include Israel's consent to any arms deal whatsoever between the United States and the UAE," Netanyahu's office said in a statement released Tuesday. "From the outset, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed the sale of F-35s and other advanced weaponry to any country in the Middle East, including Arab countries that have peace agreements with the State of Israel."

The White House declined Newsweek's request for comment. The Pentagon said that, "As a matter of policy, we do not confirm or comment on proposed defense sales or transfers until they are formally notified to Congress." The State Department referred Newsweek to Trump's remarks at a press conference Wednesday evening.

The president said then that the F-35 sale was "under review," noting that the UAE had "made a great advance in peace in the Middle East" in making a deal with Israel.

"I see a lot of countries coming in fairly quickly," Trump said. "And when you have them all in, ultimately, Iran will come in too. There'll be peace in the Middle East. That'll be a nice. Iran will be very much neutralized. They never thought this could have happened."

But that hasn't happened yet.

On Thursday, Iran flexed its military might. Marking the national Defense Industry Day, the country's armed forces exhibited a new ballistic missile and cruise missile named after Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces paramilitary deputy commander Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, both slain in a January U.S. drone strike that fueled tensions in the Middle East.

The F-35 development followed a string of events fomenting unrest in the region, including unclaimed attacks on oil tankers, two of which belonged to the UAE. Unlike the U.S., the UAE did not blame Iran outright for the attacks. The top diplomats of Abu Dhabi and Tehran even spoke earlier this month in what was widely seen as a bid to defuse tensions.

However, the UAE's recognition of Israel, Iran's top foe, spurred what Iran's highest-ranking general called a "fundamental change" in the Islamic Republic's approach to one of the few Arabian Peninsula states with whom it enjoys working ties. On Monday, Iran seized a UAE vessel accused of illegally entering Iranian waters, and charged a UAE Coast Guard with opening fire on Iranian fishermen, killing two, in an incident that prompted Tehran to summon Abu Dhabi's ambassador.

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Demonstrators hold signs depicting Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock alongside other signs reading in Arabic "No to normalization with the Zionist entity" during a protest in Yemen's third city of Taez on August 21, against the U.S.-brokered deal between the United Arab Emirates and Israel to normalize relations. The UAE backs southern separatists that fight alongside the Saudi-backed government against the Houthis, which are supportive of Iran. AHMAD AL-BASHA/AFP/Getty Images

In addition to their differences over the Persian Gulf, Iran and the UAE were also at odds over the civil war in Yemen. Since 2015, the UAE has backed a Saudi-led coalition against the Zaidi Shiite Muslim rebels of Ansar Allah, also known as the Houthis. The group is aligned with Tehran, but both parties deny accusations that the Houthis receive direct support from the Islamic Republic.

Abu Dhabi and Riyadh's Yemen campaign has also been met with criticism in Washington. U.S. lawmakers invoked the War Powers Act for the first time ever in April 2019 in a bid to halt U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia and the UAE over concerns regarding civilian casualties and links to Islamist militant groups, but Trump vetoed the measure.

A report released earlier this month by the State Department's Office of Inspector General "found that the Department did not fully assess risks and implement mitigation measures to reduce civilian casualties and legal concerns" associated with last year's $8.1 billion of U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Asked about this last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called this finding "totally unfounded."

"We were very thoughtful about how we reviewed the risks," Pompeo said. "We did it right. It was a careful process. All voices were heard inside of the State Department. Of course we want to protect civilian lives. We want to protect civilian lives in Yemen, we want to protect civilian lives in Riyadh and in Abu Dhabi, and in Dubai, and the decision that we made absolutely did that."