U.S. steps up arms sales to Persian Gulf allies

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By Joby Warrick
Sunday, January 31, 2010

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES -- The Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart future military attacks by Iran, according to former and current U.S. and Middle Eastern government officials.

The initiatives, including a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia, are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries, the officials said. All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.

The efforts build on commitments by the George W. Bush administration to sell warplanes and antimissile systems to friendly Arab states to counter Iran's growing conventional arsenal. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are leading a regionwide military buildup that has resulted in more than $25 billion in U.S. arms purchases in the past two years alone.

Middle Eastern military and intelligence officials said Gulf states are embracing the expansion as Iran reacts increasingly defiantly to international censure over its nuclear program. Gulf states fear retaliatory strikes by Iran or allied groups such as Lebanon's Hezbollah in the event of a preemptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel.

For the Obama administration, the cooperation represents tangible progress against Iran at a time when the White House is struggling to build international support for stronger diplomatic measures, including tough new economic sanctions, a senior official said in an interview.

"We're developing a truly regional defensive capability, with missile systems, air defense and a hardening up of critical infrastructure," said the official, who is involved in strategic planning with Gulf states and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "All of these have progressed significantly over the past year."

U.S. support for the buildup has been kept low-key to avoid fueling concerns in Israel and elsewhere about an accelerating conventional-arms race in the region. Iran, which has made steady advances in developing medium-range missiles, is seeking to acquire modern air-defense systems from Russia while also expanding its navy.

Gulf officials say their defensive improvements would be undertaken regardless of U.S. support, but some said they were encouraged by the supportive signals from the Obama administration, which regional leaders initially feared would be more accommodating of Iran than the Bush White House.

"It's a tough neighborhood, and we have to make sure we are protected," said a senior government official in a U.S.-allied Arab state. The official, who also spoke on the condition that his name and country not be revealed, called Iran the "number one threat in the region."

Major arms buildups

The expanded cooperation includes new U.S. agreements with Saudi Arabia to help establish a facilities-protection force under the country's Interior Ministry to harden defenses for oil facilities, ports and water desalination plants. The new force is expected to grow to 30,000 personnel and will be used to deter attacks by al-Qaeda, as well as possible strikes by Iran or Iranian-inspired terrorist groups, according to current and former officials familiar with the initiative. Washington is providing access to technology and equipment for the defense upgrade, the officials said.

Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, are also undertaking multibillion-dollar purchases of U.S.-made defensive systems. In the past two years, Abu Dhabi has topped the list of foreign customers for U.S. arms, buying $17 billion worth of hardware, including Patriot antimissile batteries and an advanced antimissile system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Three other Middle Eastern countries are considering buying the same systems.

The UAE, which recently bought 80 American-made F-16 fighter jets, last year was invited for the first time to participate in the U.S. Air Force's Red Flag exercises at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. The small Gulf country is in the process of negotiating a purchase of French Rafale fighter jets.


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