The Obama administration is paralyzed over whether to sell dozens of advanced U.S. fighter jets to the tiny kingdom of Qatar, a Persian Gulf ally that houses a strategic American air base but has alarmed Washington by maintaining ties to an array of Islamist militant groups.
The potential deal for up to 73 F-15E Strike Eagle fighter jets, worth billions of dollars, has been on the table for more than two years. The White House has come under fire for the unusual delay from some U.S. lawmakers, who accuse the administration of dithering and breaking its promise to speed up arms sales to Gulf allies anxious about the threat posed by their regional rival Iran — especially as Tehran emerges from economic sanctions and inks arms deals with countries like Russia.
Israel has privately expressed reservations about the deal because of Qatar’s relationships with Islamist groups like the Taliban and Hamas and because of concerns that Israel’s military superiority in the region could be undercut by the sale, congressional aides and former U.S. officials said. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other Gulf nations have voiced similar concerns about Qatar’s ties to terrorist groups and its increasingly warm relationship with Tehran.
Qatar, for its part, says that it wants the jets to assert itself as a military power in a region plagued by conflict and instability. Its current air force is tiny, with just a dozen aging French Mirage jets, so the proposed deal would represent a six-fold increase in its military strength. The Qatari government hopes to leverage the help it has provided Washington — from hosting the air base the United States uses to stage strikes against the Islamic State to negotiating the release of captive American soldier Bowe Bergdahl — to secure the aircraft deal.