US to supply $20 billion in arms to Gulf countries

Critics say the deal, which would seek support for US goals in Iran and Iraq, will augment regional instability.

Many Middle Eastern officials and some American politicians have voiced concern that a new US weapons deal with Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf nations may augment regional instability. On Sunday the Bush administration announced that it would sell $20 billion worth of high-tech military equipment to the six Gulf states. Coming just as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates embark on a Middle East tour, the deal would supply the six countries with satellite-guided missiles, F-22 Raptor fighter jets, and other advanced military platforms over the next 10 years.

The package would also increase military aid to Israel by 25 percent – a value of $30 billion over the next decade – and give an additional $13 billion to the Egyptian military. In exchange, the White House would ask the Arab nations to stand up against Iran and support Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Arab nations may be reluctant to accept the terms of the deal, reports The Wall Street Journal (subscription required). Many see the terms of the agreement — countering Iran and supporting the Iraqi government — as inherently contradictory.

Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and many Gulf nations have expressed concern in recent months about Iran's regional activities and pursuit of nuclear technologies. But they also view Mr. Maliki and his predominantly Shiite government as acting as proxies for Tehran and actively suppressing Iraq's Sunni minority.
Middle East analysts say the Arab states may accept Washington's offer of additional American weaponry but withhold meaningful support for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. Such a result risks fueling instability in the region, they say, and fanning the historical animosities held between Iran and its Sunni Arab neighbors. Already, some U.S. lawmakers and officials voice concerns about the weapons, finances and personnel flowing into Iraq from many Arab states in support of the Sunni insurgents.

Indeed, in a Monday interview on CNN, Zalmay Khalilzad, US ambassador at the United Nations, accused Saudi Arabia of "undermining" the American mission in Iraq. He confirmed that Saudi Arabia was among the US allies he criticized in a New York Times commentary piece last week for pursuing policies that intentionally destabilize Iraq, reports the British Broadcasting Corp.

"We would expect and want them to help us on this strategic issue more than they are doing. And at times, some of them are not only not helping, [they] are doing things that undermine the effort to make progress," said [Mr. Khalilzad].

Two prominent US Congressmen, both Democrats, have said they will do everything within their power to block the deal, citing Saudi Arabia's lack of action on terrorism as their major objection, reports the liberal, influential Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

"We need to send a crystal clear message to the Saudi Arabian government that their tacit approval of terrorism can't go unpunished," [Congressman Anthony] Weiner [of New York] said at a Sunday news conference.
[Mr.] Weiner added: "Saudi Arabia should not get an ounce of military support from the U.S. until they unequivocally denounced terrorism and take tangible steps to prevent it."

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to support the deal, which included an "explicit and detailed commitment to guarantee Israel's qualitative advantage" of having more advanced weapons systems than their Arab neighbors. Last month, Mr. Olmert met with officials in Washington to discuss the terms of the agreement. On Sunday, he publicly endorsed the deal, saying, "We understand the US's desire to help moderate states which stand at a united front with the US and Israel in the struggle against Iran." Still, the Guardian, a British newspaper, reports that the pending deal has risen concerns that the transaction may spark a Middle Eastern arms race.

"This [Bush] administration does not have an arms sales policy, except to sell, sell, sell," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association. "That approach in the Middle East can be like throwing gasoline on a brush fire."

Despite Olmert's "qualitative advantage" agreement, some Israeli officials have expressed concern about the weapons that the deal would offer the Arab states. The Jerusalem Post, a conservative Israeli newspaper, reports that the missiles that would be sold to the Saudis would be capable of accurately striking strategic sites in the south of Israel. To maintain their advantage, an Israeli delegation asked the US for stealth bombers, but American officials turned down the request, according to unnamed senior Israeli officials.

"We do not have a way to defend ourselves against this weapon," a senior Defense Ministry official said, warning that the Saudi regime could be toppled and the advanced American weaponry fall into the hands of Islamic extremists.

Meanwhile, Reuters quotes Iranian officials who accuse the US of trying to create regional conflict with the deal, which will also supply arms to Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

"America has always considered one policy in this region and that is creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries," Mohammad Ali Hosseini [Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman] told a regular press briefing.
He said Washington was "making an effort to create a chance to sell its arms and impose the export of these arms to countries in the region."
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