The Persian Gulf is a region of vital strategic interest -- political and economic -- for the United States and the free world. It is a region threatened by several sources of turmoil, both potential and actual: an ongoing war in the gulf prolonged by Iranian fanaticism, the Soviet use of military power in Afghanistan, Soviet support for radical extremists in South Yemen and elsewhere, and other elements of radicalism. Fortunately, America has many friends in the region who are helping maintain regional security and whose security in turn it is in our own interest to support. Saudi Arabia is among the most important of these.

The United States has a traditional friendship and longstanding ties with Saudi Arabia, a relationship that has been supported by every president, Republican as well as Democratic, since President Franklin D. Roosevelt. In recent years, the United States has provided Saudi Arabia with various forms of security assistance designed to enhance Saudi defense capabilities. The success of these programs can be illustrated by the Saudi Air Force's successful defense of its territorial integrity against Iranian aircraft in June of 1984.

But the radical threat to the region has grown, not diminished: witness the recent Iranian offensives against Iraq, Soviet-backed violence in South Yemen and continued attempts by Islamic extremists to subvert moderate Gulf leaders. Helping Saudi Arabia to resist such threats is very much in our interest. To that end, the president recently notified Congress of his intent to sell additional air and sea defense missiles to the Saudis.

These defense systems will support Saudi air defense into the 1990s. They will allow the Saudis to continue carrying the primary burden for their own security. Completion of the sale at this time, even though the missiles will not be delivered for several years, provides a clear and important political demonstration of U.S. commitment to Saudi self-defense. It helps deter Iran from expanding the Gulf war, bolsters the resolve of other Arab moderates, and diminishes the possibility that U.S. troops may eventually have to be used to protect our interests in the Persian Gulf.

The United States and Saudi Arabia have many similar interests beyond the Gulf, and our actions are often mutually supportive. The Saudis worked closely and diligently with us in the search for a peaceful solution in Lebanon. They continue to provide critically needed support to the Afghan freedom fighters, to the government of Pakistan and to moderate forces in Sudan. They provide important support to the World Bank and the IMF, and are one of the few countries with which we maintain an important positive balance of trade.

Some opponents of this sale have characterized it as a threat to Israel. However, there cannot be any doubt of President Reagan's ironclad commitment to the security of Israel. This is amply reflected in our continuing assistance to enable Israel to maintain its qualitative edge in military capability and includes the inauguration of unprecedented U.S.-Israeli defense cooperation. There can also be no doubt that other potential suppliers of military arms to the Arabs would be less willing to keep these concerns in mind. Among the nations of the free world, America preeminently includes Israel's security as one of its own central interests. However, this security is achieved not only through military cooperation and assistance, but also through political efforts aimed at promoting a negotiated peace. Our friendships in the Arab world are important assets in this effort to achieve a just and durable peace.

Saudi Arabia has long been one of those key friends and one of the Arab countries supporting a negotiated, peaceful, political solution. The Fez Plan of King Fahd helped transform the 15-year-old Arab consensus of confrontation with Israel into a quest for an acceptable basis for peace. This major Saudi diplomatic effort with other Arabs provided a crucial underpinning for individual efforts such as King Hussein's initiative. It constituted a significant step toward enabling the Arab world to come to terms with the need for peace with Israel. Saudi Arabia has maintained its financial and political support for Jordan as King Hussein, while defying radical Arabs, restored relations with Egypt and pressed for direct negotiations between Israel and a joint Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. The Saudis were also instrumental in facilitating Egypt's readmission to the Organization of the Islamic conference.

Currently, we are engaged in a critical struggle against Libyan-supported state terrorism. There is no question that the Saudis are a determined opponent of terrorism and that they have consistently worked behind the scenes to discourage terrorism from any source. It is essential during this difficult time, when Qaddafi is trying to radicalize the Arab world, that the U.S. response to terrorism be seen for what it is and certainly not as an attack on Arabs. To do otherwise would benefit only Qaddafi.

Saudi Arabia is a major player in the Middle Eastern arena and a good friend of the United States. Our interests require that we help the Saudis meet their legitimate security needs in the face of growing regional threats. The president's proposed sale accomplishes that objective. At the very moment when the West is finally acting vigorously against radical states bent on undermining our interests, it is critical to the future of our regional influence that we continue to afford our friends the means to defend themselves.