U.S. Plans Major Middle East Arms Sales

David Houska

Citing threats from Iran, Syria, and various terrorist groups, the Bush administration is offering more than $60 billion in new weapons and military assistance to Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other U.S. allies in the Middle East.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the latest U.S. Middle East arms sales campaign July 30 just before she and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates traveled to the region. The specifics of the deals must still be negotiated, but the agreements are anticipated to be ready for formal congressional notification by mid-September.

Although Rice characterized the proposals as the continuation of long-standing U.S. policy, she said that the deals were intended to “help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns underscored the threat from Iran, saying that the future sales will “provide a deterrence against Iranian expansionism and Iranian aggression in the future.”

Under the proposed agreements, the United States will supply $3 billion and $1.3 billion of military aid to Israel and Egypt, respectively, each year for 10 years starting in fiscal year 2009, which will begin Oct. 1, 2008. The United States has provided military assistance to Israel and Egypt since the 1970s. The new proposals represent a 25 percent increase in aid to Israel and a continuation of Egyptian aid at present levels. Burns signed the agreement with Israel on Aug. 16.

U.S. negotiators also are discussing major new arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the other five countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). The sales have been widely reported to be worth around $20 billion with the lion’s share going to Saudi Arabia.

The Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency catalogues almost $17 billion in U.S. arms deliveries to Saudi Arabia since fiscal year 1998. An October 2006 Congressional Research Service report says that Saudi Arabia has imported more than $50 billion of weapons over that general period, making it far and away the largest arms importer in the developing world.

Some U.S. lawmakers quickly denounced the Saudi arms sale and have said that they will attempt to block any sale of “high technology armaments” presented for congressional approval. Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had the harshest words for the proposed sale, citing lack of Saudi support for U.S. efforts in Iraq and in fighting terrorism. In an Aug. 2 press release, he called the deal “mind-bogglingly bad policy because the [Saudis] at every turn have been uncooperative. The idea that we are going to reward the [Saudis] with precision weaponry is a stunningly bad idea.”

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act mandates that Congress be notified of all proposed arms sales above $14 million, with a higher threshold for sales to Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and NATO members. By law, Congress has 30 days after notification to stop proposed sales by passing a resolution with a majority vote in each house. However, a two-thirds majority would effectively be required in each house to override an expected presidential veto.

Weiner and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) have announced that they intend to introduce such a resolution when Congress is formally notified of the sales. In an Aug. 2 letter to President George W. Bush, a bipartisan group of 114 representatives questioned whether Saudi Arabia was a true U.S. ally. The letter noted that Saudi King Abdullah recently called the U.S. mission in Iraq an “illegitimate foreign occupation” and that more than 50 percent of all suicide bombers in Iraq were Saudis.

Other members of Congress were more ambivalent. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) has said that he is seeking a complete briefing once the sales are finalized and will “see where we are then.” Lantos said in a July 28 statement that although he was glad that U.S. allies had seen the danger of Iran, “we particularly want to ensure that these arrangements include only defensive systems.” The Saudi deal reportedly would include satellite-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (J-DAMs), fighter aircraft upgrades, and new warships.

Israel historically has opposed U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and members of the Israeli media and political right have expressed concern that weapons sold to Saudi Arabia could be used against Israel or even the United States. The critics fear that the Saudi government could be overthrown and the weapons fall into the hands of Islamic extremists. Iran’s air force currently flies F-14 fighters that were sold to the pro-American shah just before the 1979 revolution that brought the current regime to power.

Still, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave tacit approval to the proposal. He told the Israeli Cabinet that “[w]e understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran.” State Department Deputy Spokesman Tom Casey told reporters July 30 that the United States will abide by its long-standing policy of ensuring Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.

The U.S. arms effort coincides with several other confirmed and rumored arms sales to the Middle East. France announced Aug. 2 a $405 million arms deal with Libya in which it would provide Libya with anti-tank missiles and radio equipment. Israeli media have reported that Iran is preparing to place a massive order with Russia for fighters and airborne tankers, but these unconfirmed stories have been categorically denied in Moscow and Tehran.