Global Policy Forum

US Looks to Sell Arms in Gulf to Try to Contain Iran


Congressional OK Needed

By Farah Stockman

Boston Globe
March 21, 2007

The State Department and the Pentagon are quietly seeking congressional approval for significant new military sales to US allies in the Persian Gulf region. The move is part of a broader American strategy to contain Iranian influence by strengthening Iran's neighbors and signaling that the United States is still a strong military player in the Middle East, despite all the difficulties in Iraq.

But the arms sales, which would come on top of a recent upgrade of US Patriot antimissile interceptors in Qatar and Kuwait and the deployment of two aircraft carriers to the Gulf, could spark concerns that further military buildup in the volatile region would bring Washington closer to a confrontation with Iran.

Senior US officials have been tight-lipped in public about what systems they hope to sell, citing the need to get congressional support for the measure first and skittishness among Arab allies that don't want the publicity. Current and former US officials and analysts familiar with the discussions say items under consideration include sophisticated air and missile defense systems, advanced early warning radar aircraft that could detect low-flying missiles, and light coastal combat ships that could sweep the Gulf for mines and help gather underwater intelligence.

The arms sales are a Cold War-style geopolitical maneuver designed to isolate Iran by arming its neighbors against a perceived common threat. "We should look at this in the broader context of what Secretary [Condoleezza] Rice calls the looming confrontation between extremists and moderates," Stephen D. Mull , the State Department's acting assistant secretary of political-military affairs, said in an interview. "We are on record as saying Syria and Iran sponsor these [extremist] forces." The move could be an economic boon for New England, which manufactures some of the weapons systems that are believed to be under consideration for sale.

The current arms sale proposals grew out of a diplomatic effort launched last May called the "Gulf Security Dialogue," in which US officials sought to suggest ways to bolster the defenses of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Oman. Not every country opted to buy a new weapons system, Mull said. Some asked for other kinds of assistance, such as improving port security and protecting key energy installations.

The talks produced a flurry of high-level meetings, including a recent delegation to Washington led by the crown prince of Bahrain. In May, Mull and his counterpart at the Defense Department, Mary Beth Long, will travel to Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia to continue the security talks.

In recent weeks, State and Defense Department officials have begun visiting Capitol Hill to seek support for the arms sales. Congress has the power to block them. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, hopes to schedule classified briefings soon with members of the Senate and House International Relations committees.

The US government, which has military bases in Qatar, Kuwait, and Bahrain, has tried for years to persuade Gulf allies to purchase a regionwide early warning radar system to collect intelligence and instantaneously detect a missile attack. But efforts faltered as some Gulf countries argued that the systems were too expensive, and that possible attackers -- at that time, Iran and Iraq -- were not enough of a threat to warrant the systems .

However, recent years have brought a change in attitude toward Iran, a neighbor that dwarfs most Gulf states in size and population. Now that Iran's two greatest enemies -- the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq -- have been toppled by the US military, Iran's stature in the region has grown. The Gulf nations, made up mostly of Sunni Muslims, have watched with concern as Iran wields deep influence with Shi'ite politicians in Iraq and with Hezbollah, a Shi'ite militant group in Lebanon.

Iran's increasing defiance of UN demands to curb its nuclear program has also provoked strong reactions in the Gulf. Sunni Arab states began to complain that Washington's wars had emboldened Iran and created a new, long-term risk for the region.

"All of the Sunni allies came to America and said, 'What have you done? You have created this monster,' " said retired Marine Colonel Robert Work , vice president of strategic studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington-based policy research institute. Work said Washington responded by initiating the dialogue on Gulf security and the arms sales proposals as a way "to dissuade Iranian adventurism, deter Iranian attacks or direct subversion, and assure our Sunni allies."

Some analysts suggested that any arms sales will be merely symbolic, since none of the Gulf states have militaries capable of driving off an Iranian attack by themselves. But Mull said that the sale of the systems would be a vital way to enhance military cooperation in the Gulf. "We don't sell weapons systems purely for symbolism," he said.

Michael Knights , a fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who has worked with the Defense Department on military "lessons learned" research in Iraq, said much of the negotiations on arms sales in the Gulf this past year has focused on selling the Royal Saudi Navy new Littoral Combat Ships. The small, lightly armed coastal defense ship, produced in Bath, Maine, could be equipped to sweep for mines in the Gulf and could work with unmanned undersea vehicles to conduct underwater surveillance.

Another item believed to be under consideration is Northrop Grumman's E-2D Hawkeye 2000, an early warning aircraft that the United Arab Emirates tried to acquire in 2003 to bolster its air force. The US Navy refused at the time to allow the sale of necessary communications software, so the deal fell through. But last month, Defense News, a trade publication, reported that it may now be revived.

President Bush announced in January that he would deploy an additional Patriot missile battery to the Persian Gulf. Patriots are made by Raytheon, a Boston-area company that does much of its work in Tewksbury, Andover, and Woburn. Some countries have been reluctant to agree to arms purchases because they did not want to send a message of aggression to Iran. "It's a delicate neighborhood to live in," Mull said. "There is this looming power across the Gulf that they have to live with."

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