Gates, Rice Taking Arms Offer to Saudis

The White House is set to offer Gulf Arab countries as much as $20 billion in new, sophisticated weapons as part of a larger plan to block Iran's influence by developing a stronger strategic relationship with allies in the region.

Iran will be high on the agenda this week as both Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embark on a weeklong trip through the region.

The official visit follows President Bush's somewhat cryptic announcement last week that seemed aimed at putting Iran on notice that the United States would be arming Tehran's strategic adversaries Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

"To protect our interests and to show our commitment to our friends in the region, we are enhancing our military presence, improving our bilateral security ties, and supporting those fighting the extremists across the Middle East," Mr. Bush said.

Gates and Rice have an ambitious agenda, including discussions of air and missile defense systems, according to Peter Rodman, who was until recently the Pentagon's chief liaison to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.

Rodman says that since Iraq has shown signs of implosion, Arab states — particularly Saudi Arabia — have started to get nervous about Tehran's increasing influence in the Persian Gulf region.

To counter the concern, the Bush administration has been holding out the possibility of selling the Saudis lots more weapons.

Rodman sees it as "a way of saying to them: 'Look, we are relevant to your security, you face an Iran threat, and we are here to reassure and in that way to contribute to the stability of a vital region.'"

It is basically a way for the administration to pursue its policy of containing the Iranians, said Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

"This 'quote unquote' containment of Iran will likely express itself in heavy militarization of the [Persian] Gulf," he said.

The United States is also working out deals with several Persian Gulf states for U.S. military access to their bases.

Over the past several months, Bush administration officials have been arguing that the Persian Gulf countries are actually terrified of Iran and terrified of what they see as Iran's growing influence in Iraq.

"They're afraid, first and foremost of the spread of Iranian influence in the region and they see the government of Iraq as basically a client of the Iranians," said Gregory Gause, who teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont. "The second thing they're afraid of is the spread of civil conflict in Iraq."

When it comes to Iran, countries such as Saudi Arabia play a double game; they nurture the relationship in public, but in private, the Saudis express a common concern over Iran with the United States.

"Privately I find a remarkable degree of strategic consensus," Rodman said. "Publicly, it's hard for them to say a lot. For the Arabs, they're neighbors of Iran, they have traditional relations with Iran, they talk to the Iranians but privately they are very worried."

To mitigate that worry, the administration figures a few dozen fighter jets, some missiles and an early warning radar site might just do the trick.

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