Brussels (AFP) July 30, 2007
US plans to extend huge military aid deals to Middle East and Gulf states is a high-risk attempt to give Saudi Arabia and others the muscle to calm the region's problems, military experts said Monday. "The failure of the American project for a democratic greater Middle East, confounded in the battle for Iraq, has forced Washington to try to salvage the situation by distributing military aid all over the place," said Joseph Henrotin, editor-in-chief of the French Defence and International Security periodical.
The United States Monday announced new military pacts worth 13 billion dollars for Egypt and 30 billion for Israel over 10 years, plus billions more for Saudi Arabia and Gulf states.
The US plans will "help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran," said US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington as she and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates set off on a rare joint trip to the region, seeking assurances of help in stabilizing Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will be aided to "support their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region," Rice said.
Reports have cited potential arms deals with the Saudis and five other Gulf states -- the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, worth least 20 billion dollars.
"These arms sales to Gulf Cooperative Council (GCC) States are given by the United States to Saudi Arabia in expectation that it can help calm down the situation in the Sunni world, where it exercises an influence" said Henrotin.
Evoking Iran's "strategic threat" Washington is apparently helping the Saudis to counterbalance Tehran.
In truth, the Belgian expert said, the more immediate US objective is to "dissuade Riyadh from covertly aiding Sunni extremists against Iran and its allies in Syria and the Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah.
"Those same Sunni extremists could also turn against the United States," Henrotin added.
At the same time Washington is reinforcing the Israelis to ease fears which arise there every time Arab nations receive US military aid while at the same time "calming Iranian fervour for a nuclear arsenal," he added.
It is a complicated balancing act, added Henrotin, with the US supplying all its allies at the same time "in the hope they will not turn them against each other."
Ruprecht Polenz, chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, fears the balancing act won't work.
"If you add more explosives to a powder keg, you increase the risk and do not make the region more secure," said Polenz, a senior figure in Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrat party, said in an interview in the Frankfurter Rundschau daily on Monday.
He added the warning that the message the United States hoped to send to Iran with the weapons deal could backfire, leading Tehran to step up its own arms drive.
Christopher Pang, head of the British Royal United Services Institute's Middle East programme said the US "has used the same tactics before of arming those they hope will keep a perceived threat in check."
"The risk of course is that it provokes an arms race in the region," he added.
Such fears were shared by Caroline Pailhe, a researcher at the Brussels-based peace and security research group GRIP. "In a region where energy reserves play an important role, it is always dangerous to give certain players more arms," she said.
"Due to the instability of the regimes involved, the policy could one day rebound on the Americans," she added, recalling that the West had previously aided the Iran at the time of the Shah, Saddam in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Yossi Melman, a defence specialist for the Israeli Haaretz newspaper put it in these terms: "Who knows what could happen in Saudi Arabia? Today it is the House of Saud. Tomorrow it could be the House of Bin Laden."
earlier related report
The move will "help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran," she said.
The 20-billion-dollar arms package for Saudi Arabia calls for missile defenses, early warning systems, air power and naval systems to counter Iran, said a senior US defense official briefing reporters traveling with Gates.
US media had reported that Washington was considering arms deals worth 20 billion dollars for the Saudis and five other Gulf states, but the figure discussed by the defense official was only for Riyadh.
Saudi Arabia "may come in with at least that much, the others we don't know yet," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Twenty billion is definitely a floor."
The official would not discuss specific weapons that would be included in the package.
"These are weapons that Saudi Arabia will be considering and will be needing over the next decade or so in order for them to meet their security needs as they confront Iran and other threats," the official said.
Rice said before leaving that the United States had agreed a new 10-year, 13-billion pact to bolster Egypt's capacity to address shared strategic goals.
Rice and Gates flew on separate airplanes to the Middle East.
A new 30 billion dollar pact with Israel over 10 years will soon be concluded, which hikes the value of US military assistance to the Jewish state by 600 million dollars a year on average.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states will also benefit, to help "support their ability to secure peace and stability in the Gulf region," Rice said.
Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said reports of the deal showed the United States was bent on "spreading fear" in the Middle East to generate better sales for its weapons and munitions.
"The United States has always had special policy of spreading fear in the region and tarnishing existing good relations" between countries in the Middle East, Hosseini said.
Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns will to travel to Israel and the region next month to finalize the agreements, Rice said.
"We wanted to send a strong signal of support for the security concerns of all our partners in the region," Burns told reporters.
The package was also an "effort to rebuff the attempt by Iran to advance its own strategic influence in the region," he said.
While there was no formal "quid pro quo" for the arms sales, Burns said, Washington did expect allies to back its role in Iraq and the fragile Iraqi government.
Rice and Gates will make rare joint visits to Egypt and Saudi Arabia before separate trips to other parts of the region.
In Egypt, they are scheduled to meet ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries as well as Jordan and Egypt in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El Sheikh.
Amid growing calls at home to withdraw US forces in Iraq, the duo are also expected to reaffirm US commitment to regional security against possible threats from Iran and its nuclear program.
In addition, Washington is expected to underline concerns that some Sunni Arab nations are offering financial aid to foreign fighters fueling the insurgency against the fragile Shiite-led, US-backed government in Baghdad.
Washington is particularly concerned that its most powerful Sunni Arab ally, Saudi Arabia, is bankrolling Sunni militants and serving as a conduit for them to stoke the insurgency in Iraq.
Aside from Saudi Arabia, foreign fighters flowing into Iraq via US arch-enemy Syria come from Qatar and Yemen, among other Middle East allies, US officials said.
The trip will also allow Rice, who will travel separately to Jerusalem and Ramallah to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials, to prepare for international Middle East peace talks, which President George W. Bush said would be held later this year.
Source: Agence France-Presse
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Merkel Party Warns US Arms For Gulf Could Set Off Powder Keg
Berlin (AFP) Jul 31, 2007
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats are worried that US plans to send a major arms package to Gulf states could inflame a volatile region, a party leader was quoted as saying Monday. The chairman of the German parliament's foreign affairs committee, Ruprecht Polenz, told the daily Frankfurter Rundschau that the Middle East was already a "powder keg" and that an influx of weapons could set off. "If you add more explosives to a powder keg, you increase the risk and do not make the region more secure," he said.
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