By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007
The Bush administration will announce next week a series of arms deals worth at least $20 billion to Saudi Arabia and five other oil-rich Persian Gulf states as well as new 10-year military aid packages to Israel and Egypt, a move to shore up allies in the Middle East and counter Iran's rising influence, U.S. officials said yesterday.
The arms deals, which include the sales of a variety of sophisticated weaponry, would be the largest negotiated by this administration. The military assistance agreements would provide $30 billion in new U.S. aid to Israel and $13 billion to Egypt over 10 years, the officials said. Both figures represent significant increases in military support.
U.S. officials said the arms sales to Saudi Arabia are expected to include air-to-air missiles as well as Joint Direct Attack Munitions, which turn standard bombs into "smart" precision-guided bombs. Most, but not all, of the arms sales to the six Gulf Cooperation Council countries -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman -- will be defensive, the officials said.
U.S. officials said the common goal of the military aid packages and arms sales is to strengthen pro-Western countries against Iran at a time when the hard-line regime seeks to extend its power in the region.
"This is a big development, because it's part of a larger regional strategy and the maintenance of a strong U.S. presence in the region. We're paying attention to the needs of our allies and what everyone in the region believes is a flexing of muscles by a more aggressive Iran. One way to deal with that is to make our allies and friends strong," said a senior administration official involved in the negotiations.
The arms deals have quietly been under discussion for months despite U.S. disappointment over Saudi Arabia's failure to support the Iraqi government and to bring that country's Sunni Muslims into the reconciliation process.
The administration's plans will be announced Monday in advance of trips next week to the Middle East by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, and are expected to be on their agenda in Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The administration has a notional list of arms to sell to the Gulf states, but there are no final agreements on quantities and specific models, U.S. officials said.
State Department and Pentagon officials started briefing key members of Congress about their intentions over the past week, U.S. officials said. The initial reception has been positive, said officials involved in those briefings. They acknowledged, however, that some parts of the deal are supported more than others. Arms sales to Gulf countries have often been controversial.
The administration hopes to provide a full rundown this fall for congressional approval.
"We want to convince Congress to continue our tradition of military sales to all six" states, the senior administration official said. "We've been helping Gulf Arabs for years, and that needs to continue."
Sunni regimes in the Gulf region have felt particularly vulnerable since the election of a pro-Iranian Shiite government in neighboring Iraq last year. "There's a sense here and in the region of the need to build up defenses against Iranian encroachment," said a U.S. official familiar with the deals.
The aid packages to Israel and Egypt are further along. A U.S.-Israel agreement, to replace a 10-year arrangement that expires this year, has been under discussion since February, U.S. officials said. The new U.S. package will include strictly military aid and would expand the U.S. contribution 25 percent over the current $2.4 billion per year; economic assistance has been discontinued now that Israel is considered a developed economy, U.S. officials said.
President Bush said last month, after meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, that he was strongly committed to a new 10-year agreement that would increase U.S. assistance "to meet the new threats and challenges [Israel] faces." Washington has long promised to help Israel sustain a so-called "qualitative military edge" over other major powers in the region.
Rice is expected to announce Monday that, after her Middle East trip, Undersecretary of State R. Nicholas Burns will finalize the agreements with Israel and Egypt.
Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.