The United States and Saudi Arabia have agreed to put off indefinitely the Saudi purchase of an additional $14 billion in U.S. weapons until after the Persian Gulf confrontation with Iraq has been resolved, the State Department announced yesterday.
U.S. officials and diplomatic sources said the move was due to several factors, the most immediate being a desire to avoid a potentially major battle with Israel's supporters in Congress during a time of national debate over President Bush's gulf policy.
Bush already faces opposition on Capitol Hill, particularly among Democrats who are insisting the president must seek congressional permission before using military force against Iraq.
The planned arms sale had been expected to provide the Saudis over the next several years with advanced F-15F air defense fighters, tanks and other equipment to meet the desert kingdom's long-term defense needs.
It was to be the second phase of a $21 billion arms package requested by the Saudis after Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait.
The initial part of the package -- $7.3 billion worth of planes, tanks and missiles intended to give Saudi defenses an immediate boost -- was given a go-ahead by Congress last October.
Despite expectations of strong opposition from Israel's supporters, the Bush administration had planned to submit the second phase of the package to Congress this month.
However, Secretary of State James A. Baker III and Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney told members of Congress at a meeting Thursday that the deal was being put on hold indefinitely.
"We agreed that resolution of the gulf crisis was our first priority, and we need to further assess Saudi arms needs in the context of the post-crisis environment," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday. "Strong defense forces are an important element of regional stability, and the United States will continue to assist Saudi Arabia in building such capabilities."
When the administration originally proposed the $21 billion sale late last summer, it drew widespread suspicion that the gulf crisis was being used to shift the Middle East arms balance in ways more threatening for Israeli security. Congressional critics pointed out that despite administration claims of urgency, some of the weapons it proposed to sell were not yet in production and could not be delivered to Saudi Arabia for several years.
Eventually, the administration bowed to congressional pressure and agreed to split the package into two parts, with the larger portion being held until Congress had time to debate the long-range impact on the Mideast arms situation.
The sources said Saudi Arabia had agreed to avoid a fight at this time with pro-Israel forces over weapons that could not be acquired anyway for several years. In fact, the sources said, the Saudi ambassador here, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, has sought in recent days to advise American Jewish organizations of his country's willingness to put off the purchase.
Moreover, the sources said, Pentagon officials believe that the buildup of more than 580,000 American and allied troops in the gulf region has virtually eliminated the likelihood of an Iraqi attack against Saudi Arabia.
They said the Saudis now have sufficient weaponry for immediate needs.
Lastly, the sources said, the Saudis have been reassessing the kinds of weapons they might need after the crisis, particularly if Iraq's armed forces suffer considerable damage.
"It's hard for Saudi leaders to say they need planes to defend against the Iraqi air force when it might turn out that there is no Iraqi air force," one source said.
The sources said another factor influencing the Saudis has been a financial one. Despite the recent surge in oil revenues to the Saudi ingdom as a consequence of higher world oil prices triggered by the invasion, Saudi officials contend they are feeling a financial pinch. They say the billions of dollars in additional revenues are being offset by added expenses of the crisis, including support of U.S. forces in Saudi Arabia and payments to such front-line countries as Egypt, Jordan and Turkey whose economies have been particularly hard hit by the conflict.