By Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 4, 2007
CAIRO, Aug. 3 -- Arab nations in the Persian Gulf are snapping up new U.S. arms offers partly out of fear that U.S. military installations on their territory would make them targets in any American war with Iran, regional experts said.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the prospective weapons sales for Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf nations this week as she toured the Middle East with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. The two sought to win support for U.S. peace efforts in the region and reassure Arab allies worried about fallout from U.S. policies toward Iraq and Iran.
Bush administration officials said they expected the arms deals for the Gulf states -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates -- to total at least $20 billion.
Saudi Arabia, with Israel and Egypt, is one of the United States' most powerful allies in the region. The United States pulled most of its forces out of the Saudi kingdom by 2003, but the five other Gulf countries host armored brigades, air-refueling sites and other installations of the U.S. Central Command. All told, Gulf bases host an average of 40,000 U.S. troops, with an additional 20,000 American troops afloat offshore.
For the Gulf hosts, "this makes them vulnerable. It's quite clear that if the U.S. is going to have any military strike against Iran, then they are going to use these military bases. . . . I don't think Iran will miss any chance to impose damage on the region," said Ibrahim Saif, director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan, in a telephone interview from Amman.
Rice said the Gulf arms package would "help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran."
The governments themselves were more guarded. Qatar's foreign minister already had announced that his country would not take part in any attack on Iran, and the Emirates' president ruled out use of his country's territory.
"Of course they have to say it, because Iran is a big gorilla, the 800-pound gorilla," in their neighborhood, said Thomas Mattair, a Washington area author on the Middle East and former research director of the Middle East Policy Council. "But genuinely, their preference is that we don't use force."
"They're concerned about Iran's capability to retaliate against them, to inflict damage on them," Mattair said by telephone. "They've been asking us not to do it. Obviously, they've been getting mixed signals from this administration, as everyone else has" regarding preemptive strikes on Iran.
Arab leaders this week gave scant public acknowledgment of the U.S. arms offer. Rice was the central player in an Arab summit at Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, but photos on many front pages here showed only Arab leaders smiling and holding hands with Arab leaders, with no U.S. official in sight.
Syria, an ally of Iran, called the arms deals "dangerous." In a statement about the arms sales on his official Web site, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "All U.S. efforts are for the creation of differences among our brothers in the region to impose its ideas and hegemony."
Gulf states, with their tiny armies, hope to buy deterrence with the arms packages, Mattair said, but the new deals probably will prompt a matching buildup by Iran, which is already sprinting to lengthen the range of its missiles and hone its nuclear technology.
Ultimately, U.S. arms sales in the Gulf often are a matter of rewarding the prime protector of the Middle East with oil dollars, analysts said. The U.S. military also offers up some of its more coveted product lines to ensure that Gulf allies keep looking to the United States as its primary protector, rather than Russia or China.
"Was selling U.S. arms to Gulf countries in the past ever a deterrent to Iran or anyone else?" asked Khaled al-Shami in an article in the London-based Arabic daily al-Quds al-Arabi. "Or is it an indirect way to spread around oil revenues where U.S. warships embark?"
Rice also announced a 10-year renewal of the $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt has received from the United States each year since 1987. Egypt has been the second-largest recipient of U.S. military aid since signing a peace accord with Israel in 1979.
Egyptian human rights activists said the U.S. arms renewal gave Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak tacit U.S. sanction to proceed with his crackdown on all forms of opposition here.
Tuesday, as Rice and Arab leaders talked at Sharm el-Sheikh, an Egyptian court refused to release imprisoned opposition leader Ayman Nour. The court rejected defense contentions that beatings and other harsh treatment in custody had made his diabetes life-threatening.
Nour was the lead challenger to Mubarak in 2005 elections. A court later sentenced him to five years in prison after convicting him of political fraud. Nour's supporters said the case against him was falsified. Rice told reporters Thursday on the flight back to Washington that she had raised Nour's case privately with Mubarak. Her inquiry went unreported in Egyptian newspapers during the trip.
"The United States decided to replace one commodity, democracy . . . after it discovered the dangers of exporting democracy without the necessary complementary package of cultural and social change and public liberty," wrote Hussam Ittani, a columnist for Lebanon's as-Safir newspaper. "What is the replacement? A commodity whose usefulness was proven in the past: gigantic arms deals."
Staff writer Robin Wright and staff researcher Robert E. Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.