Obama Seeks Congressional OK For Weapons Sale

The Obama administration has notified Congress that it plans to sell $60 billion in fighter jets, helicopters and other advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. The deal is part of the U.S. effort to build up allies in the Persian Gulf to counter Iran.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now for news of an arms deal that would be one of the largest in U.S. history. The Obama administration announced a plan to sell $60 billion worth of fighter jets, helicopters and other advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia. The deal is part of the U.S. effort to build up allies in the Persian Gulf to counter Iran. NPR's Michele Kelemen has more.

MICHELE KELEMEN: State and Defense Department officials say if Congress gives the green light, the U.S. will sell 84 F-15 fighter jets, 190 helicopters, as well as missiles, bombs and night vision goggles to Saudi Arabia. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs Andrew Shapiro says the proposed sales are not solely aimed at countering Iran, though he points out Saudi Arabia is in a dangerous neighborhood.

Mr. ANDREW SHAPIRO (Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs): It will send a strong message to countries in the region that we are committed to support the security of our key partners and allies in the Arabian Gulf and broader Middle East. And it will enhance Saudi Arabia's ability to deter and defend against threats to its borders and to its oil infrastructure, which is critical to our economic interests.

KELEMEN: Congress has 30 days to block the deal, but Shapiro says he's not expecting much opposition to the arms sales. He also says delivering these weapons to Saudi Arabia won't diminish Israel's military edge in the region - a point echoed by the assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, Alexander Vershbow.

Mr. ALEXANDER VERSHBOW (Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security): I think it's fair to say that, based on what we've heard at the high levels, Israel does not object to this sale.

KELEMEN: Vershbow says this deal will boost U.S. Saudi defense cooperation and help Saudi Arabia protect its borders and energy infrastructure.

But analyst Christopher Boucek of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says there are doubts that the Saudis really need all of this advanced weaponry. He says the arms deal is more about offering assurances to the region as the U.S. scales back its presence in Iraq.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER BOUCEK (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace): This is what I really think it's about, is instilling confidence in the Saudis and demonstrating that this relationship is strong and enduring and lasting. And no matter what happens in the future, if it's post-Iraq, if it's a conflict with Iran, it shows that the Americans and the Saudis are side by side and that the Israelis are not objecting to any of this.

KELEMEN: In other efforts to counter Iran, the Obama administration has been talking to Arab states about improving their missile defenses and is in talks with Saudi Arabia about upgrading the Saudi navy as well. That could lead to billions more in arms sales.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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