President Bush has 18 months left in office and desperately wants to retrieve his legacy which is mired in the Middle East. So, last week, the President sent his Secretaries of Defense and State to the region to cajole Arab dictators into helping resolve crises in Iraq, Israel and Iran.
The US is using a package of sophisticated weapons to lure Sunni Arabs into helping America address tough challenges. What’s not clear is whether giving them more efficient killing instruments will stop or start violence and whether the burst of diplomatic energy at the tail end of the Bush administration will help or hinder the next commander-in-chief.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asserts, “This [arms package] isn’t an issue of quid pro quo.” Events suggest otherwise. After Rice visited Saudi Arabia last week, the Kingdom reversed its position on two issues: Iraq and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced his country will send a diplomatic mission to Baghdad “and explore how we can start an embassy in Iraq” and Saudi Arabia will participate in peace talks.
It’s good that the Saudis have promised to talk but the Bush administration needs the Kingdom to do more. That’s why the weapons deal might just be enough to leverage meaningful assistance. After all, Riyadh is very nervous about hegemonic Iran so it’s willing to help Bush on other fronts in order to get US assistance in facing down Tehran.
However, there is a downside to the President’s policy. Selling sophisticated weapons to non-democratic Saudi Arabia is a double edged sword because Riyadh has a history of transferring military technology such as giving US weapons to Iraq in the 1980s. Besides, arming the Arabs with sophisticated weapons like laser guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM) might further destabilize the region.
Iran is the geopolitical elephant in the living room. The US has twice failed to talk the mullahs out of their unhelpful role in Iraq and five years of weak sanctions haven’t stopped Tehran’s nuclear arms race. Obviously, Iran believes it deserves to be a regional hegemon which distresses the Arabs.
The Sunni Arab world appears to have concluded that Iran rather than Israel is their main strategic threat because the Jewish state has no imperial ambitions, Iran does.
So, the arms deal leverages the Arabs’ Iran-phobia. Therefore, the policy quid pro quo is that the Arabs will get US arms to deal with Iran if they agree to assist the US in settling the messes in Iraq and Israel.
No doubt, Iran is a regional hegemon. America helped elevate the Persians to that status by removing their worst enemy, Iraq’s former dictator, and then Tehran turned Baghdad into a Shiite ally. Iran has established footholds in both Lebanon and Gaza via proxies Hezbollah and Hamas and it is building bridges with Afghanistan’s Taliban. This is all made possible by high oil profits that fuel Tehran’s proxies and its military build-up.
Understandably, many Sunni Arabs are alarmed. “Iran is invading the Arab world and burning everything in its path,” columnist Mshari al-Zaydi wrote in Saudi daily Asharq al-Awsat. “With the Arabs standing idly by, Iran seeks to impose its control over the region.” Even Jordan’s King Abdullah has spoken of a threatening “Shiite crescent” reaching Lebanon.
It’s noteworthy that Israel is sympathetic to this view. Israel is concerned about Iran’s use of proxies and is constantly reminded by cocky Iranians that Tel Aviv will be the bull’s eye for Iran’s first nuclear weapon. Even the Saudis realize that Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s threat to “wipe Israel off the map” is more than rhetoric and they fear the Shiite Iranians have eyes for them as well.
Previously, Israel has loudly opposed Arab arms deals: not this time. “We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states, and there is a need for a united front … regarding Iran," Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert told his cabinet.
Of course, there’s hush money in the deal for Israel. It gets a 25 percent increase in US military aid over 10 years and so does peace partner Egypt.
There is the risk that the arms deal will backfire, however. It could further destabilize the region and the weapons could end up in bad hands or the technology might be diverted. Even if the deal doesn’t backfire, there is little likelihood that these weapons will ever benefit the US if we go to war with Iran. The combined military force of the Arab states is so small that in a major conflict their contribution, if they provided it, would hardly be noticed.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora is irked by the alleged destabilizing Israeli part of the arms deal. He fears it “strengthens and feeds extremist currents.”
Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s terrorist leader, agrees with Siniora. "The American administration is working on instigating sectarian strife and civil wars in Palestine, Iraq, the Gulf and … between the countries of this region," Nasrallah said.
Then there is always the chance that extremists might topple the current Sunni dictators and Islamic radicals would control the advanced American weaponry. After all, none of the Arab dictators are popular and we will never be able to ensure the security of the weapons or technology.
It’s not trivial that American weapons technology is expensive and vulnerable to technological countermeasures. US government investigations have documented the unauthorized transfer of American military equipment, dual-use items and high technology by Mideast allies. Some of that technology ends up in the competition’s products or in hands of our adversaries, and gives some the opportunity to defeat our technology before a bullet is fired.
There is also the notion that these weapons are purely defensive. The problem is that defensive weapons can be turned into offensive weapons such as strapping bombs on jets intended for reconnaissance. Besides, what’s “defensive” about a laser guided JDAM? If we want to help the Saudis with defensive weapons then sell them surface to air missiles.
Predictably, Ahmadinejad attacked the arms deal by warning that America wants to “impose its ideas and hegemony” on the region. Then he took a swipe at the Arab dictators by suggesting they “spend the resources for progress and development of their countries" rather than weapons.
The US must reconsider its weapons-for-talks policy. It may provide short term Arab help but it won’t stop Iran and it risks technology diversion and further regional destabilization.