Eyeing Iran, US details $60 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia

Israel is unlikely to object to the arms sale of up to 84 new F-15s and 1,000 'bunker-buster bombs' to Saudi Arabia that analysts say is meant to counter Iranian influence in the Middle East.

Bob Strong/Reuters/File
A U.S. Air Force F- 15 fighter jet does a low-level flyby in eastern Afghanistan in this 2009 file photo. The Obama administration has notified Congress of an arms sale to Saudi Arabia worth up to $60 billion, including 84 new F- 15 jets.

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The US State Department officially announced Wednesday plans to sell up to $60 billion in advanced military aircraft to Saudi Arabia, in what experts call an effort to bolster regional powers against Iran.

The Wall Street Journal, which broke details of the sale in early September, reports the largest-ever US overseas arms deal will include authorization for the Saudis to purchase up to 84 new F-15s and upgrades to Saudi Arabia's existing fleet of 70 F-15s, as well as new helicopters and other weapons.

While the arms sale has been known about for months and been under negotiation since 2007, Wednesday's announcement revealed that it would include up to 1,000 one-ton bunker-buster bombs, which would "enhance the capability of Saudi Arabia's air force to bomb hardened bunkers and tunnels, such as those that the West believes are used by Iran to hide nuclear and ballistic missile programs," reports the Journal.

It is Iran's long-suspected drive to acquire nuclear weapons – Tehran maintains its nuclear ambitions are peaceful – that underpin the massive arms sale to Saudi Arabia. The Christian Science Monitor reported in September that the deal is meant to contain Iran as it develops its nuclear capabilities.

"It’s a reminder to the Iranians," Thomas Lippman at the Council on Foreign Relations told the Monitor last month, that if Tehran continues down a nuclear path "the response will be to so beef up regional rivals and enemies that their overall position will be diminished."

A transcript of the official announcement by the State Department and its accompanying press conference is available on the State Department's website.

The announcement triggers the start of a 30-day window for Congress to review the deal, before the United States and Saudi Arabia launch more detailed negotiations of the sale. The Washington Post reports that Congress is not expected to block the deal, despite vocal opposition from some members of Congress. The Post cites defense industry analysts, who say that Congress has been generally unable to block such arms sales in the past.

And while such a massive arms sale in past decades would have drawn severe opposition from Israel, now experts say that Israeli and Saudi interests are so similarly aligned against Iran that Israel is amenable to the deal.

The Jerusalem Post reports that Israel is not expected to object to the arms deal, despite some reservations, as it does not threaten Israel's military advantage in the Middle East. However, Israel is "not thrilled about it," said spokesman Jonathan Peled of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.

But US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Colin Kahl said the deal doesn't include "the types of systems the Israelis would be most concerned about," i.e. long-range weapons that could potentially be used against Israel. The arrival of F-15s to Saudi Arabia would not begin until 2015, the same year Israel is slated to begin receiving more-advanced F-35s.

In addition, the arms sale is also meant to bolster Saudi Arabia against other threats to regional stability. During the announcement of the deal, Andrew Shapiro of the US State Department said that the sale would "protect [Saudi] security in a dangerous neighborhood against legitimate security threats."

Dr. Theodore Karasik of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis in Dubai told The Christian Science Monitor earlier this month that US military allies in the Middle East "face a number of state and nonstate threats." Dr. Karasik noted as an example that Saudi forces have clashed with Houthi rebels along the Yemen-Saudi border, and that the helicopters provided in the arms sale could strengthen the Saudis there.

According to the US Government Accountability Office, the US sold up to $37 billion in arms to Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Kuwait from 2005 to 2009.

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