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Secretary Rice's Mideast mission: contain Iran

US plans to give more than $20 billion in military aid to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Sunni Arab states.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, Rasheed Abou-AlsamhCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / August 2, 2007

Tel Aviv and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

US secretaries of Defense and State are using their high-profile meetings this week with Arab and Israeli leaders, in part to herald a new Bush administration strategy toward Iran: cold war-style containment.

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The trip comes on the heels of a US proposal to offer $20 billion in military aid to Arab Gulf states (mostly Saudi Arabia) and a $30 billion package for Israel. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did not mask the purpose of the deal when she called Iran “the single most important single-country challenge to ... US interests in the Middle East.”

“The talks on Tuesday night between [Saudi Arabian] King Abdullah and US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice were very important, as they signaled the beginning of a political showdown between the US, Gulf states, and Egypt on the one hand, and Iran on the other,” says Adel al-Toraifi, a Saudi analyst who focuses on his country’s relations with Iran.

Mr. Toraifi says since the US “surge” in Iraq is not achieving fast results, America wants to shift attention to another front.

“The Americans were waiting for the surge in Iraq to take effect, but since the surge wasn’t going very well, they decided to announce the new offensive of containing Iran. It is important for the Bush administration to [show] some achievements in the Middle East” before a congressional review of the surge planned for September, he says.

“What America is doing now is containment, saying that the peripheral states [to Iraq] that are our allies have to be protected,” says Meir Javedanfar, a Tel Aviv-based Iran expert and author of “The Nuclear Sphynx of Tehran.”

“It looks inevitable that America will withdraw [from Iraq], so it’s building a giant fence around Iraq by supporting the countries it has good relations with.”

This may lead to shoring up Sunni states – particularly Iran’s neighbors in the Gulf – who will be a main driver of US policy as an eventual draw-down of US forces in Iraq looks more likely.

Israel, which vociferously opposed US arms packages to the Saudis in the 1980s, has made it clear it’s not opposed to this current deal. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said he “understood” the US decision, and said “there is a need for a united front between the US and us regarding Iran.”

“For Israel, the No. 1 priority is Iran, and in this case they see the Saudis as on the same side as Israel. They have a mutual interest in containing Iran,” says Mr. Javedanfar.

Analysts say Israel also has an eye on drawing Saudi Arabia deeper into peace efforts with the Palestinians – and perhaps encouraging them to become the third Arab state to recognize Israel. President Bush is proposing an Arab-Israeli peace conference to be held in Israel in the fall. Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said his country would consider attending, but only if it addresses “issues of real substance.”

That appeared to be a reference to a Saudi proposal made earlier this year that promises peace and recognition of all Arab states in return for Israel abandoning the territory it seized in the 1967 war.

But whether the US military aid will add up to much change – in either Iran’s ambitions, or the eventual stabilizing of Iraq – remains to be seen.

Ms. Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gate’s trip to Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters in Ramallah began with potentially embarrassing comments from the US ambassador to the UN, Zalmay Khalilzad, who is the former ambassador to Iraq. He accused Saudi Arabia of undermining Iraq’s stability, an allegation similar to the ones the US has lobbed at Tehran.

After a meeting with Rice on Wednesday morning in Jeddah, the Saudi foreign minister said he was “astounded” by the criticism, and said his country was doing all that it can. Then his government agreed to a US request to upgrade its diplomatic relationship with Iraq. Rice praised the Saudis: “We are good friends, we are allies.... [But] it doesn’t mean there won’t be disagreements about policies, tactics.”

Jamal Khashoggi, editor in chief of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, said that Saudi Arabia has not helped the US in Iraq until recently as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a point of telling Saudi Arabia and other moderate Arab countries to stay away from Iraq.