(Adds White House statement, comment from human rights group, background)
By Mike Stone
WASHINGTON, July 24 (Reuters) - The Trump administration will reinterpret a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow U.S. defense contractors to sell more drones to allies, the White House said on Friday.
President Donald Trump "has decided to invoke our national discretion" to effect the change, the White House said.
The pending change was first reported by Reuters in June.
The new treatment opens up sales of armed U.S. drones to less stable governments that were forbidden from buying them under the 33-year-old Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).
The Trump administration has pressed ahead with its revamp of drone export policy under pressure from American manufacturers and despite objections from human rights advocates, who warn of the risk of fueling instability in hot spots including the Middle East and South Asia.
The MTCR classifies large drones as cruise missiles - and therefore subject to high export restrictions - making approvals rare.
Under the reinterpretation, the United States says it will treat drones that fly under 800 kilometers per hour, including Reapers made by General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc and Global Hawks made by Northrop Grumman Corp, as if they belong in a lower category that falls outside MTCR jurisdiction. No longer subject to the MTCR's high bar, large drone exports will be considered on a case-by-case basis like other weapons sales.
"This decision undermines a global regime, allows others to ignore international restraints, and focuses on economic benefits over U.S. national security, foreign policy and human rights concerns and is yet another example of short-sighted decisions by the Trump administration," said Rachel Stohl, a weapons expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, a think tank focused on security issues that opposes weapons proliferation.
Reinterpreting the MTCR is part of a broader Trump administration effort to sell more weapons overseas. It has overhauled here a broad range of arms export regulations and removed the U.S. from international arms treaties including the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty. (Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington, D.C. Editing by Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)