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ISN Security Watch June 21, 2006

Iran's neighbors turn to US for arms

By Carmen Gentile

The US is looking to ramp up its arms sales to countries in the Middle East amid continuing concerns that Iran's nuclear program could one day produce weapons of mass destruction.

Though Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has signaled his readiness to negotiate his country’s nuclear program, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed not to “succumb” to international pressures emanating from the US.

Last week, Iranian Defense Minister Hassan Ali Turkmani said his country would “use nuclear defense” if "threatened by any power” and that Iran "should be ready for confronting all kinds of threats."

Turkmani’s statement has more than raised eyebrows in the Middle East; it has caused some countries to considering bolster their own defenses against a possible strike from Iran.

While Israel has endured numerous threats from Iran over the years, now several Sunni-dominated Arab nations are also growing wary of Iran and its Shi'ite Ayatollah leadership.

The once Sunni-dominated Iraq has now been placed in the hands of the US-backed Shi'ite-dominated government, shifting the balance of power in the age-old tensions among Muslims and Islamic countries. That kind of change concerns conservative Islamic nations and sparks worries that if the tensions in Iraq are not quelled in the near future, the violence could spread to other parts of the region.

In light of uncertainties in Iraq, countries like the United Arab Emirate (UAE), Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia are talking to the US about how they can upgrade their respective militaries in the face of an Iran that could one day possess nuclear weapons.

"We’re in discussion with their services and their leaders to see what capabilities are required and how the United States can best fulfill those needs," said Air Force Lieutenant General Jeffrey Kohler said in an interview with Reuters news agency last month.

Kohler and his Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) - part of the US Department of Defense - are in charge of the US arms sales to foreign governments. The general said the Pentagon was on track to conduct some US$13 billion in foreign sales this year, up from US$10.6 billion in 2005. A sizeable portion of the increased funding would likely be appropriated toward arming Middle Eastern nations, said defense analysts.

“The theory would be that Iran would be less inclined to strike first at them [if they were better armed],” John E. Pike, director of Globalsecurity.org, told ISN Security Watch.

“If things really got going, those states would be in a better position to defend their own interests,” he added, noting that if the unrest in Iraq is not quelled that Sunni-Shiite conflict could spill across borders and quickly consume the entire region.

Weapons wish lists

Pike said that “different countries have different things on their shopping lists” and that the UAE would likely be in the market for F-16 fighter jets, while Saudi Arabia might also be interested in attack planes, as it has not purchased any new ones in some time.

Leading US defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and Boeing are thought to be at the top of the list to be awarded future Middle Eastern country contracts, though the Pentagon said it also expected countries to turn to weapons manufacturers in France and elsewhere.

"Our job is not to rack up sales," said Kohler. "Our job is to help people get the capabilities they need."

While the Pentagon and Middle East leaders would not comment on the specifics of potential weapons sales in the coming year and beyond, defense analysts speculate that future purchases would include US missile defense systems, fighter planes, and warships to protect those nations' shipping lanes - vital for the transport of oil.

When asked by ISN Security Watch, the DSCA would not identify which countries were interested in purchasing additional arms from the US military, however, Kohler noted last month that Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait were among those seeking more weaponry.

“We don’t speak of specifics [regarding weapons sales] until congressional notification takes place,” an official with the DSCA told ISN Security Watch.

“Because there are too many players […] it would be very foolish of us to get ahead of the process and name names,” he said.

Arms sales to the three countries acknowledged by Kohler would likely be approved with minimal objection in a Republican lower house and Senate, although midterm elections in November could hand the lower house back to the Democrats and narrow the leadership margin in the Senate, making it more difficult for the Pentagon to get the approval it needs.

If approved by Congress, noted the DSCA official, the transaction would still have to win final approval from the State Department.

A State Department green light would certainly be likely considering the US government sold numerous arms to Gulf State countries in the 1990s, weapons that are still in the process of being integrated into their respective arsenals.

Weapons contractors were also reluctant to discuss future sales to the countries in question when asked by ISN Security Watch.

“We have several ongoing possibilities for sales to several of the region’s countries,” said a media relations official at Lockheed Martin who refused to elaborate on which countries might be seeking what type of weaponry.

The official did note that Oman, Turkey, and the UAE, all within close proximity to or bordering Iran, had purchased F-16 fighter jets in recent years.

Military officials from several Middle Eastern nations questioned by ISN Security Watch would also not comment on what weaponry their respective countries may purchase in the coming years, citing national security concerns.

Countries like Saudi Arabia would likely by interested in US attack aircraft and missiles systems considering their past purchases. In 1998, Riyadh bought long-range CSS-2 ballistic missiles from China and could be in the market for newer weaponry akin to the Patriot missiles made famous in the first Gulf War, useful when repelling short and medium range attacks from nations close by like Iran.

Kuwait, meanwhile, had already purchased in 2002 40 F/A-18C/D fighter bombers, M-1A2 Abrams tanks (with 130,000 rounds of ammunition), armored personnel carriers and Patriot and Hawk anti-aircraft missiles, according to a report by the Federation of American Scientists.

Carmen Gentile is a senior international correspondent for ISN Security Watch based in Miami. He has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bolivia for Security Watch, and Haiti, Venezuela, and elsewhere for United Press International, The Washington Times, and others.

Copyright 2006, ISN, Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich, Switzerland