U.S. Could Trigger Deadly Middle East Arms Race

The new United States plan to sell arms to Saudi Arabia and other allies in the Middle East to counter growing Iranian influence could trigger an arms race and worsen instability in an already volatile region, say experts.

The arms deal, which still requires the approval of the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress, is one of the biggest ever. It offers a package of 20 billion US dollars to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, 13 billion dollars to Egypt and 30 billion dollars to Israel over 10 years. Items include advanced fighter jets, smart bombs, computer systems and missile boats.

''It is an ill-advised strategic approach for geo-strategically containing Iran,'' said Steven Wright, associate professor at Qatar University. ''It is a flawed logic for Washington to see the arms sales as a means of strengthening its position against Iran and enhancing regional security.''

''Selling more arms to the Gulf countries, along with Israel, will only serve to make Iran's security concerns more acute and increase regional insecurity,'' the Doha-based specialist on Gulf-US relations wrote over e-mail. ''On the other hand, it will likely prompt Iran to devote more of its state budget towards defence expenditure.''

Supporting the anxiety about an arms race in the region are reports indicating that Russia is planning to sell 250 Sukhoi jets, including 30 of the most advanced jets it has, to Iran. Further, on Aug. 5, Iran unveiled its new fighter jet -- 'Azarakhsh' (Lightning) -- said to be modelled on the American F-5, but using indigenous technology.

The proposed aid announcement was followed by a visit to the region by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates, last week.

During the visit, Rice dismissed suggestions about shifting the military balance or starting a new arms race or the military aid to the Gulf countries being a ''quid pro quo'' to get their assistance in Iraq. ''We are working with these states to fight back extremism,'' she insisted.

But Iran accused the U.S. of trying to create fear and mistrust in the Middle East and aiming to destabilise the region.

A Washington Post report went a step further suggesting that ''the United States and Iran are now facing off in a full-fledged cold war ... The Bush administration is trying to drape a kind of Green Curtain dividing the Middle East between Iran's friends and foes. The new showdown may well prove to be the most enduring legacy of the Iraq conflict.''

In its Aug. 2 editorial, the Dubai-based Gulf News said: ''Their (U.S.) purpose is clear: to raise the stakes in the threats against Iran primarily, but also Syria, Hezbollah and al Qaeda, the bete noire of the current US administration.''

However, it questioned why the GCC countries have to ''blindly follow the wishes of the US?'' Without naming the UAE, it added, ''Some GCC nations have had territorial disputes with Iran...and have deliberately avoided using the military option in the belief that the issues can be resolved through talks and mediation.''

The London-based Arabic language newspaper Al-Quds Al-Arabi on Aug. 1 interpreted the promised military package as confirming ''Washington's abandonment of democracy in favour of preparing for war.''

Questioning if the ''sale of U.S. weapons to the Gulf countries in the past (acted as) a deterrent to Iran or any other country,'' the paper asked: ''Can the deal be a reward for the Saudi policy that is deepening the US quandary in Iraq?'' or ''is it a blatant and theatrical motive for making relations between Riyadh and Tehran tense as part of a regional umbrella for a U.S. political and media, and probably military, escalation against Iran?''

The aid proposal also came amid U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad accusing U.S. allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, of pursuing destabilising policies in Iraq by funding Sunni militants against the mainly Shiite government in Baghdad. ''Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries are not doing all they can to help us in Iraq,'' he was quoted saying last week. ''At times, some of them are not only not helping, but they are doing things that are undermining the effort to make progress.''

In fact, a growing cadre of U.S. congressmen is resisting the Bush administration's Middle East arms plan. Within five days after the proposed sale was announced on July 27, 114 members of the House, including 18 Republicans, informed President George W. Bush that they intend to vote against the plan.

U.S. policies in the region during the last few years, according to Prof. Gary Sick of Columbia University, is a ''marvellous example of political jiu jitsu. ... The United States made possible an emergent Iran by eliminating its Taliban rivals to the east and its Baathist rivals to the west and then installing a Shiite government in Baghdad for the first time in history.''

Sick told a Web-based forum of Gulf experts that, ''Having inadvertently increased Iranian strength and bargaining power that frightened U.S. erstwhile Sunni allies in the region and undermined U.S. strength and credibility, Washington now proposes a new and improved regional political relationship to deal with the problem, and, incidentally, to distract attention from the U.S.'s plight in Iraq while reviving America's position as the ultimate power in the region.''

The new U.S. policy, according to Sick, includes providing ''military cover for the Arab Gulf states as they take a more confrontational position vis à vis Iran, which of course produces some juicy profits for the U.S. aerospace industry, but also provides a framework for getting Israeli (and U.S. congressional) acquiescence for selling some significant new military technology to the Arabs.''

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