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Guns for Saudis and the President's veto

By JOSEPH C. HARSCH / May 15, 1986



LET us start with one fact in the current controversy over American weapons for Saudi Arabia. The United States does not give anything to Saudi Arabia, and no one is talking about any gifts.

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Saudi Arabia buys its weapons out of its own funds. It buys many other things from the United States. American architects design its modern buildings. American engineering firms build them. American lawyers advise the government. American companies supply the lion's share of the modern goods which the Saudis buy in their race from tent life to high-rise life -- in one generation.

The only question at issue is whether Washington will continue to allow the Saudis to buy the weapons that have been planned for the modernization of Saudi armed forces to a level sufficient to give them the ability to play a role in the defense of the Gulf.

The US has been a silent partner in arrangements for defense of the Gulf. It has helped plan a ``rapid-deployment force'' to be made up from the forces of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. The Gulf ``rapid-deployment force'' is part of a larger American plan for defense of the Gulf area.

There is more than friendly cooperation between US and Saudi armed forces. When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in September 1980, the US deployed a squadron of American AWACS (advance warning and control system) planes to the Saudi military air base at Dhahran. These planes have been based there and operated from there by American crews ever since. In fact, though not in the form of any official treaty, Saudi Arabia is part of the American military system.

Saudi Arabia is America's best customer in Arabia. It buys from the US much more than it sells to the US. It is a factual military partner. It has long been America's closest friend and associate in Arab affairs.

Saudi Arabia now has on order one AWACS to be operated by its own people, plus various surface-to-air weapons to help in its defense. Its main concern is Iran. Saudi Arabia is a large country with a small population -- about 11 million. Iran is a country of nearly 45 million. The Iranian armed forces outnumber Saudi forces, massively. Iranian aircraft have entered Saudi airspace. On one occasion intruders were shot down by Saudi fighter planes that had been alerted and vectored by the American AWACS.

The Reagan administration originally intended a further arms sale to Saudi Arabia worth more than $1 billion. This was trimmed back to a reduced package worth $354 million. New types of weapons were deleted from the original package. It provides at present only for more weapons of types that are already in the Saudi arsenal.

The issue came to a preliminary vote in Congress last week. Senate and House both rejected the proposal by overwhelming margins. It was 73 to 22 in the Senate and 356 to 62 in the House. Israel did not officially object to the package. The pro-Israel lobby, AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), did not lobby actively. But the speakers against the package used the familiar Israeli arguments against weapons for Arabs.

The White House has announced that President Reagan will try to persuade Congress to change its mind. It is presumed that he will veto the objections of Congress. The question will then be whether the veto will be overruled.

Presumably some members who voted against the package last week can be persuaded to change their mind by the President.

But since Congress was first persuaded to vote approval for the sale of an AWACS plane to Saudi Arabia, the Israel lobby has helped to bring about the defeat of Rep. Paul Finley and Sen. Charles Percy, both of Illinois, who voted in favor. With an election coming up this fall, few members of Congress care to face reprisal at the hands of the pro-Israel forces.

Refusal of further aid to the Saudis might be interpreted by Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran as a signal that the US is no longer interested in the protection of Saudi Arabia. There is a large Islamic fundamentalist movement inside Saudi Arabia. The present conservative regime could be overthrown. A fundamentalist regime taking over in Saudi Arabia would be an unpleasant event for Washington.