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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
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And I'm Melissa Block.
Iraq, Iran and a big arms deal were on the agenda today as America's two top cabinet secretaries visited Saudi Arabia. Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates are on the second leg of the four-day trip to the Middle East. The arms deal with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states could total more than $20 billion. The administration is trying to downplay the significance of the deal, but analysts see it as part of a larger strategic plan to build up a Gulf Arab alliance as a bulwark against Iran.
NPR's Guy Raz sent a report from Jeddah.
GUY RAZ: To this hot, dry and fortress-like Saudi city, the two secretaries have come to make a deal. The message is simple: back the American-sponsored government in Iraq, and in return, you'll receive a collection of America's most advanced weaponry to protect you against Iran. It's not a deal Secretary of State Rice is advertising, in fact, she is downplaying it.
Secretary CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Department of State): I don't think of this as some sort of quid pro quo. America has interest in this region that are well served by the ability of our long-standing allies to protect themselves against potential threat.
RAZ: The talk on this trip is about building diplomatic consensus on issues like Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Iran. But in practice, the visit by the Bush administration's two heavy hitters is also about laying the groundwork for a reenergized military relationship between the United States and Gulf Arab countries; a relationship hard to see as anything other than aimed at Iran.
Here's Secretary Gates as he spoke to reporters en route.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): One of the areas we will be exploring is whether there is interest in pursuing a dialogue on ways to further strengthen bilateral security relationships and perhaps explore new opportunities in that arena.
RAZ: The Gulf Arab states, all ruled by Sunni Muslim monarchs or princes, are suspicious of Shiite, Iran and its perceived power in this region. The Gulf countries view the U.S.-backed Iraqi prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, as nothing more than a puppet of Iran. Still, there is a widespread view in the administration that Iraqi stability depends on cooperation from countries like Saudi Arabia.
Here's Rice again.
Sec. RICE: There are neighbors of Iraq who are - could do more effectively than they are doing, and that - by not doing that, they're not being helpful.
RAZ: Administration officials quietly conceived the ball is in Saudi Arabia's court. Washington wants to see Saudi Arabia lead the Sunni-Arab world in opposition to Iran's nuclear program. But at the same time, Saudi Arabia wants assurances that Iraq won't become a client state of Iran.
Officials traveling with Secretary Gates insist that the Gulf Arab states, and Egypt and Jordan, have two regional fears: one, on U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, and two, an ascendant Iran.
Former defense department liaison to the Saudis, Peter Rodman, argues that the United States now has a rare window of opportunity to build a regional Gulf Arab consensus aimed toward pressuring Iran.
Mr. PETER RODMAN (Former Defense Department Liaison to the Saudis): These countries have many options. They can just submit to Iranian domination, or they can pursue nuclear weapon program of their own, which they may be flirting with or attempting to. The far preferable course for them is to have confidence in the Americans to be their backstop.
RAZ: Intelligence officials believe Iran is anywhere from five to 10 years away from building a nuclear bomb. And some Pentagon officials see this trip to the region as a way to lay a foundation for that possibility.
Guy Raz, NPR News Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
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