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Senator to block arms sales to Gulf

Iran seeks stronger ties with Qatar, urges Europe to promote dialogue


WASHINGTON, June 27, (Agencies): The chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Monday he would block arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and other members of the Gulf Cooperation Council pending progress in resolving a simmering dispute with Qatar. “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 ISIS and counter Iran,” Republican Senator Bob Corker wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

His action could increase pressure on members of the Gulf Cooperation Council to settle the crisis. The GCC groups Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates imposed a boycott on Qatar, their tiny but wealthy neighbor, on June 5, accusing it of supporting terrorism.

They have sent it 13 demands including closing al Jazeera television, curbing relations with Iran, and paying reparations. Under US law, major foreign US arms sales are submitted for review to a small group of lawmakers, including the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, before they can go ahead. Trump considered Corker as a potential vice-president and secretary of state, and he works closely with the White House. The administration would be unlikely to ignore his resistance to the arms sales, and US officials said they considered his statement part of a broader effort to solve the Qatar crisis. A State Department official noted that Tillerson called on Sunday for the countries involved to sit down together and discuss ways forward.

The official declined comment on arms sales beyond saying the department remains committed to working with lawmakers. It was not immediately clear what sales would be affected.

Trump has announced billions of dollars in arms sales since taking office in January. He sees weapons sales as a way to create jobs in the United States. A Corker aide said his action would not affect sales that had already been reviewed by Congress or non-lethal assistance, including training. One sale already cleared by Congress was for up to $350 billion in precision-guided munitions and other offensive weapons to Saudi Arabia.

In his letter, Corker said he was pleased with Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia, which included a GCC summit. “Unfortunately, the GCC did not take advantage of the summit and instead chose to devolve into conflict,” Corker wrote.

Germany urges talks
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel on Tuesday appealed to all sides in the Qatar crisis to hold direct talks to avoid a further escalation, and urged Iran to play a constructive role. “The longer the crisis around Qatar continues, the deeper and stronger the lines of conflict will become,” Gabriel told reporters after a 90-minute meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. “We hope that there soon can be direct discussion among all those involved because a further escalation will serve no one.”

Gabriel said a 2015 agreement in which major powers lifted international sanctions against Iran in return for curbs on its nuclear programme had helped avert military conflict. US President Donald Trump has criticised the deal, but Gabriel said Germany and Europe would resist any efforts to cancel it. He said Iran and Germany remained “worlds apart” on Israel’s right to exist, which he called “non-negotiable”, but that he and Zarif had had open discussions about that issue and many others. Gabriel said Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was trying to make Iran more attractive to foreign investors as part of a broad effort to improve the lives of the Iranian people. But he said Iran could also improve its standing by helping to reduce tensions in the region. Zarif said Iran was interested in working toward a political solution to the conflict with Qatar — which, unlike its Gulf neighbours, maintains good relations with Tehran — arguing that “pressure and sanctions and blockades” were not the answer.

Iran seeks stronger ties
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday said his country wants to bolster ties with Qatar and rejected a Saudi-led blockade of the Gulf Arab emirate. “Iran’s policy is to develop more and more its relations with Doha,” Rouhani said in a phone conversation with the Amir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, according to the presidency website. “Tehran stands alongside the people and government of Qatar and we believe that … pressure, threats and sanctions are not a good solution to solve problems” between countries of the region, Rouhani added. Shiite dominated Iran, an arch-rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, has stepped in by shipping to Qatar tonnes of fruit and vegetables. “Helping Qatar economically and developing ties, particularly in the private sectors of both countries, could be a common goal,” Rouhani said on Sunday. Saudi Arabia and its allies, including Egypt, have issued 13 demands which they want Qatar to meet in return for an end to the nearly three-week-old diplomatic and trade “blockade”. Doha has said denounced the demands — including the closure of Al-Jazeera news channel and downgrading ties with Tehran — as unreasonable.

Promote dialogue
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called on Monday for Europe to use its influence to defuse tensions in the Gulf where Saudi Arabia and its allies have cut ties with Qatar. In a speech in the German capital, Zarif said the countries who blamed Iran or Qatar for terrorism were trying to avoid taking responsibility for their own failures in addressing the demands of their own people. “One day it’s Iran, today it’s Qatar,” he said. “It’s an attempt to evade responsibility, escape accountability for this very fundamental … failure of the state system to address, to respond to the demands of its populus.” Zarif argued for a new regional dialogue forum for the Gulf countries and called for an end to the armaments spiral in the region, which he said influenced some Western countries’ relations with states in the region. “When foreign policy becomes a commodity, then purchasing military equipment becomes your yardstick for measuring who is a terrorist or who isn’t a terrorist,” he said. “This reinforces a cognitive disorder in our region that security can be purchased from outside, that security can be purchased by trying to buy more military equipment,” he added. “What is needed in our region is a regional dialogue forum.”

Turkey rejects demand
Turkey’s president on Sunday rejected a demand by major Arab states to remove Turkish troops from Qatar, among a sweeping list of ultimatums that the United States has described as “difficult to meet.” Speaking after Eid Al-Fitr prayers in Istanbul, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the demand to pull the Turkish troops “disrespectful” and said his country would not seek permission from others when making its defense cooperation agreements. “Demanding that Turkey pull its soldiers is unfortunately also disrespectful toward Turkey,” he said.

He said Turkey would continue to support Qatar against the many sanctions it has faced since several Arab countries moved earlier this month to isolate the country for its alleged support of terrorism. Turkey shipped suppliers and food via cargo planes to Qatar after its neighbors closed down air, land and sea routes. The United States said the demands on Qatar by its Mideast neighbors “will be very difficult to meet.” But the US isn’t rejecting the demands outright. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson added in a statement Sunday that the list of demands from Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates includes major areas that “provide a basis for ongoing dialogue leading to a resolution.” He called on the Arab countries to “sit together” with Qatar to work through what he hoped would be “reasonable and actionable” demands.

In a sign of support, the Turkish parliament swiftly ratified a 2014 military agreement with Qatar earlier this month, allowing the deployment of troops to its base there. The military said a contingent of 23 soldiers reached Doha on Thursday. Turkey has also shipped supplies and food via cargo planes after Erdogan said he made a similar offer to Saudi Arabia to set up a base there in the past but did not hear back from the king. A Turkish foreign ministry statement Sunday reiterated that the deployment of Turkish troops in Qatar contributed to regional security and was not aimed at a specific country. “Just like the presence of other foreign military bases or units in other countries of the region, our military presence in Qatar is principally based on a decision taken by the two countries relying on their sovereign rights,” ministry spokesman Huseyin Muftuoglu said.

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