Blockbuster US arms sale to Saudi Arabia: Will it deter Iran?

The Pentagon says the largest sale ever of US arms, worth more than $60 billion, is aimed at bolstering Saudi Arabia on a number of fronts, Yemen included. While the threat from Iran appears to be the main motivation for the sale, its deterrent effect won't be known for some time.

It is the largest sale of arms that the United States has ever negotiated, and it is aimed squarely at Iran: More than $60 billion worth of American F-15 fighter jets, Apache helicopters, and missile defense systems will soon be on their way to bolster the arsenal of Saudi Arabia, the oil-rich country which serves as a major bulwark against Iranian influence in the Middle East.

There is little doubt that the arms sale will win approval in Congress once it is notified by the Obama administration. But whether this shipment, to be delivered over the course of the next several years, will deter Iranian nuclear ambitions – or merely ratchet up tensions in the region – remains an open question.

Pentagon officials are quick to point out the sale is not simply about Iran: The deal will also give Saudi Arabia the capability to confront wider threats posed by terrorists, including the ability to move more quickly to potentially tamp down threats across the border with Yemen, which is sliding ever more deeply into instability.

But though the national security pitfalls facing the Saudis are not one-dimensional, “A motivating factor is clearly the threat posed by Iran’s missile programs and its nuclear programs,” says Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell.

“Saudi Arabia is not going to spend this kind of money if it feels secure,” adds Anthony Cordesman, a defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “These are very serious amounts of money.”

This money will have the additional effect of making Saudi Arabia more dependent on the United States, with systems that the country won’t be able to sustain “for any length of time unless the US provides supplies and support,” Mr. Cordesman says.

As a result, he adds, there is little chance that Saudi Arabia could take the technology and arms and “suddenly become a rogue state.”

As for the question of whether the arms sale move will ratchet up tensions with Iran, some analysts dismiss the notion that it will have any additional impact in an already fraught relationship with a country that is already seeking nuclear technology. “Iran has already issued a wide range of threats that aren’t tied to the arms sale,” Cordesman says. “They keep talking about their capabilities to attack the US, to destroy the US fleet, about creating graveyards in Iran for US forces.”

The arms sale may even give Iran pause, Cordesman says. “It’s obvious when Saudi Arabia acquires a modern aircraft that Iran can’t cope with … that could have powerful deterrent capabilities.”

But those effects, if they come at all, will take time. “This is not some instant shift in the balance. Americans and Saudis know this,” Cordesman adds. “And, incidentally, Iranians know this as well.”

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