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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Here are some elements of the security relationship between the United States and its allies in the Persian Gulf. The Americans buy Persian Gulf oil. They provide the Gulf states with a measure of security, and the U.S. also sells those governments weapons.

Now the Bush administration is set to offer Gulf Arab countries an arms deal that could total more than $20 billion. It's part of an effort to bolster U.S. allies just across the water from Iran.

This week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice both traveled to the region, and NPR's defense correspondent Guy Raz is following the story.

GUY RAZ: Back a few weeks ago, the president made a somewhat cryptic announcement. He was sending a message to Iran. And the message was that the United States would soon be sending a lot of weapons to Iran's strategic adversaries, like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: To protect our interest and to show our commitment to our friends in the region we're enhancing our military presence, improving our bilateral security ties and supporting those fighting the extremists across the Middle East.

RAZ: And to underline the message, Mr. Bush announced he'd be sending the secretaries of state and defense to the region in the coming weeks. Well, it's happening this week starting tonight.

The two secretaries have an ambitious agenda ahead of them and it's not just about kissing the royal rings.

Mr. PETER RODMAN (Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense): Air and missile defense is something that we have absolutely been discussing.

RAZ: This is Peter Rodman who was, until a few months ago, the Pentagon's chief liaison to the Saudis and the other Gulf states. He explains that since Iraq started to implode from within, the Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia, started to get nervous about Iran's increasing influence in the region. And so to calm the Saudis down, the Bush administration has been holding up the possibility of selling the Saudis more weapons, lots more weapons.

And so, according to Pentagon officials, the administration this week will propose a $20 billion arms deal with the Gulf states. Peter Rodman sees it as…

Mr. RODMAN: 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.

RAZ: It's basically a way for the administration to pursue its policy of containing the Iranians, says Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Mr. RAY TAKEYH (Council on Foreign Relations): This, quote-unquote, "containment of Iran" will likely express itself in heavy militarization of the Gulf.

RAZ: So, over the next few years, lots of U.S. weapons will start to flow into the Gulf. The United States is also working out deals with several Gulf states that will grant the U.S. military access to their bases.

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

Gregory Gause, who teaches Middle East politics at the University of Vermont, agrees.

Professor GREGORY GAUSE (Political Science, University of Vermont): One, they're afraid, first and foremost, of the spread of Iranian power in the region and they see the government of Iraq as basically being a client of the Iranians. The second thing that they are afraid of is the spillover effect of civil conflict in Iraq.

RAZ: Now when it comes to Iran, countries like 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.

Here's former Pentagon official Peter Rodman again.

Mr. RODMAN: Privately, I find a remarkable degree of strategic consensus. Now, publicly it's hard for them to say a lot. For the Arabs, you know, they're neighbors of Iran, they have traditional relations with Iran, they talk to the Iranians. But privately they are very worried.

RAZ: And so to mitigate that worry, the administration figures a few dozen jet fighters, some missiles and an early warning radar site might just do the trick.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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