Mideast Arms Deal Seeks Delicate Balance

The Bush administration's plan to provide billions of dollars in weapons and technology to U.S. allies in the Middle East is intended to help stabilize Iraq and contain Iran. But it comes with plenty of risks.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now, the top civilian at the Defense Department, Robert Gates, began his day in Egypt. He's traveling with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. And they're sure to be talking about an arms deal as they move across the Middle East this week.

Plans call for the United States to provide billions of dollars in military sales and assistance to Egypt, and Israel, and Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Gulf region. There are questions as to what's behind this move and what the United States would gain.

NPR's national security correspondent Jackie Northam reports.

JACKIE NORTHAM: The U.S. has had close political and military relationships with the regimes in the Persian Gulf states for years. Close ties with Saudi Arabia go back decades. The relationship with other regional nations was ramped up after the first Gulf War. Their militaries are overwhelmingly built around U.S. equipment and know-how, and there are huge U.S. bases in countries such as Kuwait, Qatar and Bahrain.

Given that, it's not surprising that there would be more U.S. arms sales to those allies. But Michele Flournoy, the president of the Center for a New American Security, says it's the context and the timing of this deal that's different.

Ms. MICHELE FLOURNOY (President, Center for a New American Security): It comes at a time when Sunni and Shia tensions in the region are higher than they have been in years. It comes at a time when the U.S. is in the midst of a war where it's having trouble getting the support it needs from its regional allies.

NORTHAM: The proposed deal includes $30 billion of military aid for Israel over the next decade, while Egypt will get $13 billion as part of the broader package. There are no specific details about the military deal for Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Nicholas Burns, the under secretary of state for political affairs, says negotiations are still underway.

The package for Saudi Arabia is expected to include upgrades for its fighter jets, new naval vessels and precision-guided bombs. The deal comes at a time of increasing U.S. frustration that Saudi Arabia and other countries in the region are undermining progress in Iraq. Even so, Burns says the U.S. will not formally insist on assurances that the meddling will stop.

Mr. NICHOLAS BURNS (Under Secretary of State For Political Affairs, Department of State): But it stands to reason that, given the fact that Iraq is the number one American foreign policy interest globally, we would want our friends in the region to be supportive not only of what the United States is doing in Iraq, but what the - but of the Iraqi government itself.

NORTHAM: But Flournoy says there is enormous fear among Sunni nations such as Saudi Arabia about Iran's ascendancy, and that the Iraqi government under Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki is seen as heavily influenced by Tehran. Flournoy says Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations feel compelled to intervene.

Ms. FLOURNOY: Saudi Arabia certainly doesn't want to support a government that is exclusively Shia or not giving adequate protections to the Sunnis in Iraq, but neither does it want Iraq to become so destabilized that it becomes a regional war or causes greater regional instability.

NORTHAM: James Russell with the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey argues that meddling in Iraq by regional states is a logical response to the deteriorating situation in Iraq. He says they're hedging their bets for the date the U.S. pulls out. Russell says the arms deal could help reassure U.S. allies in the region.

Professor JAMES RUSSELL (Naval Postgraduate School): The arms sales package, of course, is one step the United States is taking to restore the confidence that the regimes, the regional states that have historically been friendly with us, that we will remain with them and that we will remain committed to regional security and stability.

NORTHAM: The weapons deal is seen, in part, as a way to curtail attempts by Iran to expand its own strategic goals in the region. But Iranian hard-liners may see the move as further justification for a nuclear weapons program, says Jon Alterman with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Mr. JON ALTERMAN (Director, Middle East Program, Center for Strategic and International Studies): They are surrounded by states with increasingly powerful arsenals, that a nuclear deterrent, an unconventional deterrent, is increasingly the only way to defend the country. And some people will see this as a reason to go ahead even faster. Others will argue that this is a reason to negotiate, to be more cautious, that the U.S. is not going away.

NORTHAM: The final weapons deal is due to be formally presented to Congress in September.

Jackie Northam, NPR News, Washington.

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