Why the $20 Billion Arms Deal?

The *New York Times* has an interesting piece today on the $20 billion arms deal to Saudia Arabia and some of the other Gulf sheikhdoms. Mark Mazzetti and Helene Cooper write that the U.S. has admitted that the plan to provide advanced weaponry to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel is to contain Iran. Helping America’s friends in the Middle East is paramount the White House says, and the weapons will include “only defensive systems.”
Why the U.S. felt the need to announce this is a mystery, since it’s a pretty obvious conclusion to draw. Did the Iranians not get the message the first time? [They certainly seem rather upset about the whole thing](http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/07/30/AR2007073000623.html/). America “is creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini. Shockingly, the U.S. blew off Iran’s concerns and countercharged that it was Iran that was doing the meddling. “There isn’t a doubt that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of the Middle East that we want to see,” said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice en route to Egypt with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
(By the way, Lebanese Hezbollah is going to get *tons* of milage out of that comment. They like to fashion themselves as the bulwark against America’s “imperialist plans” in the Middle East.)
Rice denied there was any *quid pro quo* for the package, saying “We are working with these states to fight back extremism.” Yeah, whatever. Back in Washington, undersecretary of state for political affairs R. Nicholas Burns didn’t get the memo, however, saying, “We would want our friends in the region to be supportive not only of what the United States is doing in Iraq, but of the Iraqi government itself.” Translation: of *course* it’s a *quid pro quo*.
Who else might have missed the message that Iran was Public Enemy No. 1 in the Middle East these days? Congress? It would seem so. The White House faced hostile questions from lawmakers during closed briefings as to why the U.S. thinks new, “only defensive” weapons would deter Iran.
Ah. And there’s a reason for trumpeting the Iran threat in preparation for these sales. Senators and Representatives are eager to distance themselves from the Bush White House, and Israel is viewed as a trusted friend in the Middle East. No member of Congress ever lost an election by standing up for the Jewish state. By questioning these deals, members up for reelection get to defend Israel’s interests. Even though Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed approval of these sales to moderate Arab countries, Israel is probably looking for a little Congressional insurance — paid for with lobbying dollars — to keep the balance of power in its favor, despite assurances from the White House that they have nothing to worry about.
So it’s more than possible that the White House is playing up the Persian peril as a way to keep them from blocking the deals. By warning of Iran, the White House can make the case that the weapons sales are actually *good* for Israel, and that the weapons will be “only defensive.” How can you oppose standing up to the greatest threat to Israel?
That probably won’t comfort the Israeli’s too much because as part of the payment for supporting the Shi’ite-led government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, America’s Arab friends are buying things that don’t seem “only defensive.” Egypt’s package, for example, (which is separate from the Gulf package and “only” $13 billion) includes advanced [AIM-9X Sidewinder missiles](http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/systems/munitions/aim-9x.htm), used on jet fighters for aerial combat. In the past, Israel has successfully lobbied the United States not to sell such missiles to Arab states out of fear that the balance of power might shift. And Egypt’s a lot closer to Israel than it is to Iran.
So you see why the Israelis might on the one hand express no great concern — they’re getting $30 billion extra themselves over the next 10 years — and on the other have their allies in Congress question the wisdom of selling advanced missiles and smart bombs to neighboring states they really don’t trust.
But why are these deals so important? Well, $20 billion is a lot of money for defense contractors, who overwhelmingly donate to the Republican party. It’s also, obviously, a reward and incentive for backing Maliki’s government, which most Sunni Arab governments in the region see as an Iranian cats-paw. And finally, the weapons might deter Iran making Israel a little safer.
But I wouldn’t bet on it.
*Parts of this post draw on my writings at [IraqSlogger.com](http://www.iraqslogger.com) — CA*