Iran Is Critical as U.S. Unveils Arms Sales in the Middle East

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of arms and aid to Middle Eastern countries:
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said of arms and aid to Middle Eastern countries: "We are working with these states to fight back extremism." (By Charles Dharapak -- Associated Press)
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007

SHANNON, Ireland, July 30 -- The United States and Iran exchanged tough accusations on Monday as the Bush administration unveiled a huge package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf countries expected to total at least $20 billion, as well as separate 10-year agreements for $43 billion in military aid to Israel and Egypt.

Less than a week after the second round of the new U.S.-Iran dialogue, Tehran charged that the U.S. plan to sell sophisticated weapons to the six Arab states will only further destabilize the volatile region.

U.S. policy "is creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran. "What the Persian Gulf region needs is security, stability, peace, prosperity and economic development."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates left for the Middle East on Monday to discuss details of the arms sales as well as efforts to stabilize Iraq and generate progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

"For the secretary of state and the secretary of defense to travel together to any region, including the Middle East, at a minimum is very rare, if not unprecedented," Gates said en route to Egypt. "I think that it is a statement first of all of the importance of this region in terms of U.S. vital interests and the importance we attach to reassuring our friends out here of our staying power."

Rice dismissed Tehran's concerns and countered that Iran's meddling and influence are behind growing insecurity in the Middle East.

"There isn't a doubt that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of the Middle East that we want to see," Rice told reporters traveling with her en route to a refueling stop in Ireland.

America's top diplomat blasted Iran for "support for terrorism that is a threat to the democratic forces in Lebanon, support for the most radical forces in the Palestinian territories . . . or support for Shiite militias and the transfer of technologies that are endangering the lives of our soldiers and endangering a free Iraq."

U.S. officials said that Iran is not the only reason behind the new packages of weapons sales and military aid, but Tehran was the constant undercurrent in briefings by U.S. officials in Washington and on the road.

"Iran has worried everybody in the region. It supports everything that the rest of the world is trying to defend against," R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone briefing.

Burns said that Washington had tried to "open the door" to Iran in two rounds of talks involving the top U.S. and Iranian envoys in Baghdad, and through negotiations led by the European Union on Iran's nuclear program. "And we've been rebuffed by Iran," he said.

Rice and Gates will meet Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, over the next two days to discuss the new packages. Rice insisted that the Bush administration has not imposed demands on its allies in exchange for the arms and aid deals.

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