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

A senior Emirati official familiar with the military exercises said UAE leaders want to enhance "interoperability" with U.S. defensive systems, as well as high-quality weapons.

"We don't measure ourselves by what our neighbors are doing," the official said. "We're interested in sophisticated training and the best and most capable platforms" available.

The country's buildup has impressed U.S. military officials, who say the U.S.-allied Emirates have emerged as a military power in their own right. In a speech in Bahrain last year, U.S. Central Command chief Gen. David H. Petraeus said the UAE air force alone "could take out the entire Iranian air force, I believe."

Although Gulf states are generally loath to publicly antagonize Tehran, the military expansion is occurring against a backdrop of anxiety over the growing dominance of Iran's hard-liners in the wake of last year's disputed presidential election. Like Washington, Arab capitals see Iran's nuclear program as dangerous and destabilizing, even if Iranian leaders stop short of building a nuclear warhead.

In interviews in three Middle Eastern countries, political leaders and analysts said they fear that a nuclear-capable Iran will become the dominant regional power, able to intimidate its neighbors without fear of retaliation. Nearly all the Gulf countries have sizable Shiite Muslim populations with ties to Iran, and some analysts warned that Tehran may try to use these to stir up unrest and possibly even topple pro-Western governments.

"Nuclear weapons are probably most useful to Iran as a deterrent against attack by others, but beyond that, it's all about the swagger and mystique rather than the weapons system," said Nabil Fahmy, a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States. "I can't see Iran using such weapons, but they could become much more provocative."

Regional nuclear fears

The concern over Iran has partly eclipsed long-standing concerns about Israel, a military powerhouse with an undeclared nuclear arsenal that includes scores of warheads that can be delivered by aircraft, submarines or long-range ballistic missiles, some regional analysts said.

Iran's apparent progress toward nuclear-weapons capability has also heightened fears of a regional arms race that will expand to include atomic bombs. Driving the concerns are new initiatives by several oil- and gas-rich Arab states to build nuclear reactors or power plants, ostensibly to augment domestic energy supplies. The UAE, with heavy U.S. support, recently signed deals to build its first nuclear power reactors. Among other countries taking or considering similar steps are Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Kuwait, Jordan and Yemen.

Western and Middle Eastern analysts say it is unlikely that any of those countries will openly pursue nuclear weapons, a move that would probably prompt a suspension of Western aid. The UAE has taken pains to design a nuclear energy program that it says is proliferation-proof, eliminating parts of the nuclear-fuel cycle that could be exploited to obtain material for bombs.

But if Iran were to test a nuclear device, all of the countries would reconsider their options, government officials and analysts said.

"Every country in the region will open their files and decide again what to do," said a retired Arab general who asked for anonymity so he could speak freely about the subject. "If nuclear weapons appears to be the road to becoming a world power, why shouldn't that be us?"

Warrick, a Washington Post staff writer, reported with the support of the International Reporting Project, an independent nonprofit journalism program based in Washington that provides grants to U.S. journalists to report overseas.

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