The Bush administration is under fire from a bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress for supporting a deal for Saudi membership in the World Trade Organization despite Saudi Arabia’s anti-Israel stance and tepid counter-terrorism efforts.
A letter to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, co-signed by 47 House members from both parties, called it “premature to reward Saudi Arabia with this benefit when we should be demanding more progress on a variety of key foreign policy, national security and human rights issues.”
The letter, initiated by Democratic Rep. Ben Cardin of Maryland, comes as the World Trade Organization is opening membership talks with Iran. Washington lifted its objections to the talks last week, during a WTO meeting in Geneva, as part of a deal to encourage Iran to freeze development of its nuclear program.
American officials have said publicly they hoped to wrap up negotiations with Saudi Arabia before the next WTO meeting in December. This, in turn, would remove the main obstacle to a free-trade agreement between Washington and Riyadh.
A top Saudi trade official, Fawzi Alalami, undersecretary of the kingdom’s Ministry of Commerce and Industry, said last week that he expects the American-Saudi trade talks, which have lasted almost a decade, to be concluded in the coming weeks.
One of the congressional letter’s signers, Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, blasted the administration in an interview for “coddling the Saudis.”
“Saudi Arabia is a much greater threat than Saddam Hussein ever was and we coddle them,” Nadler told the Forward. “They are bankrolling terrorism. So to see the administration encourage WTO acceptance is deeply troubling.”
The State Department did not return a call seeking comment.
According to Cardin, the congressional group’s two main concerns were Saudi Arabia’s “secondary boycott” toward Israel — which targets companies doing business with Israel, contravening WTO rules — and its reluctance to curtail terrorism financing.
“The United States could block the Saudis from entering the WTO,” Cardin told the Forward, noting that the body makes its decisions by consensus. “I understand the administration wants to promote free trade, especially in the Middle East, but it should ask more from Saudi Arabia.”
Cardin cited last year’s free-trade agreement between the United States and Bahrain as an example, noting that the smaller Gulf kingdom had indicated a willingness to phase out trade discrimination measures against Israel.
“I hold out hope that the administration will be able to sway the Saudis to drop their secondary boycott and carry out their commitments to fight terror,” Cardin said.
President Bush has stated that he regards free trade in the Middle East as a way to undergird regional peace and stability. In 2003, he announced an ambitious 10-year plan to create an integrated Middle East Free Trade Area, modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement. In addition to Bahrain, Washington has signed free-trade agreements with Jordan and Morocco in recent years. It has also signed interim trade agreements with several Arab countries, including Saudi Arabia. Last week, the administration seemed to be sending mixed messages about Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in a Friday address to the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, had high praise for the Saudis. “We really applaud what Saudi Arabia has done in terms of the fight against terrorism, particularly since the events of May of last year in Riyadh,” she said, referring to a wave of homegrown terrorist attacks in the Saudi capital in 2004. “The Saudis have been very aggressive in hunting down the terrorist cells that are in Saudi Arabia and we’ve had a good deal of success also on the terrorist financing front.”
A few days earlier, however, Treasury Undersecretary Stuart Levey told the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobbying organization, that while the Saudis “have come a long way to improve their efforts against terrorist financing… much remains for the Saudis to do,” including the creation of a commission to monitor the sprawling charitable sector that is the source of most terrorism funding.
“Also,” Levey added, “in addition to the export of terrorist funds, we are extremely concerned about the export of terrorist ideologies.”
In contrast to the slow progress on Saudi trade ties, the Bush administration opened the door last week to more rapid progress in Iran’s bid for WTO membership. The administration’s green light was part of a delicate negotiation between Iran and European countries over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Pressed by the Europeans to offer a “carrot,” the United States dropped its opposition, dating back to 1996, to the opening of formal negotiations between Iran and the WTO.
After Washington confirmed that it would lift its perennial veto on opening WTO talks with Iran, Tehran agreed to maintain a freeze on its nuclear program until early August. By then, France, Germany and Great Britain, which have led the nuclear negotiations, are to produce new proposals for a settlement.
Congressional critics were divided on the administration’s gesture toward Tehran. While Nadler endorsed the move as one of the many carrots worth offering to ensure that Tehran is prevented from acquiring nuclear weapons, another New York Democrat, Eliott Engel, expressed dismay over the concession.
“One of the only chips we had with Iran was our opposition to WTO talks, and we gave it up when they threw crumbs on the table,” Engel said. “We are unable to address the issue of Iran seriously because we are bogged down in Iraq, and it’s a shame.”
The administration’s Iran decision was also criticized by the Republican chair of the House Middle East subcommittee, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida. She said in a statement that the decision meant Iran had received “yet another pass from the international community to continue to pursue nuclear weapons capabilities, unconventional weapons and ballistic missile development, [sponsor] terror, and violate the most basic human rights of the Iranian people… This policy of engagement and appeasement will only serve to embolden the regime.”
Ros-Lehtinen is sponsoring a House bill, co-signed by more than 200 lawmakers from both parties, that would step up American sanctions against Iran and cut foreign aid to countries that have businesses investing in Iran. The bill has strong backing from Aipac.