BEIRUT (Reuters) - U.S. promises of military aid or arms sales to strengthen its Middle Eastern allies against Iran and other regional foes seem aimed at repairing a balance of power destroyed by the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Toppling Saddam Hussein ended Iraq’s role as a counterweight to Iran, a part it had played since the 1980s in a Gulf security system that Washington had hoped would contain the rival powers.
Supplying advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries sends a message that Washington is committed to backing conservative rulers it had criticized after the 9/11 attacks for spawning Islamist militancy, analysts said.
“The idea is that stability can be achieved by deterrence,” Dubai-based security analyst Mustafa Alani said, adding that while aircraft and missiles might help contain Iran’s rising power, they could not stabilize Iraq or deter al Qaeda.
The United States said this week it would offer weapons packages worth billions of dollars to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. It has placated Israel by announcing a 25 percent rise in military aid to $30 billion over the next 10 years. Egypt will also get $13 billion, similar to present levels.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who arrived in Cairo with Defense Secretary Robert Gates on Tuesday, has said the plans will “help bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria”.
Her language was that of regional power politics, in contrast to earlier visions set out by U.S. President George W. Bush of a Middle East that would be jolted by the Iraq war towards democracy, freedom and acceptance of Israel.
Even a year ago, Rice defended the U.S. refusal to demand an early halt to Israel’s war with Hezbollah in Lebanon by saying the conflict was just the “birth pangs of a new Middle East”.
Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, said the proposed arms deals with Arab states confirmed that Washington’s democracy agenda was “more than dead”.
Aligning Sunni Arab states and Israel against the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran was an attempt at damage control after Iraq’s demise as a counterbalance to the Islamic Republic.
At best, Salem said, announcing the weapons deals might be a ploy to improve Washington’s hand ahead of possible negotiations with Iran and Syria. U.S. and Iranian officials have met twice in Baghdad for rare talks on how to stabilize Iraq.
Alani said the military hardware was aimed at reassuring Gulf Arab states unnerved by the chaos in neighboring Iraq and unsure of Washington’s willingness to defend them from Iran.
“They want to enhance their self-defense capability. It’s a result of the U.S. losing credibility in Iraq,” he said, adding that Iran’s nuclear and missile work, perceived meddling in Iraq and assertive rhetoric had fuelled fears in Saudi Arabia.
But Riyadh was in no mood to heed U.S. demands that it give more support to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki — a Shi’ite seen by the Saudis as incapable of curbing sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and as too heavily influenced by Tehran, Alani said.
“The Saudis will not support the Maliki government, whether the Americans like it or not. They feel the Americans need them more than the other way round — in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, in counter-terrorism, even in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”
Olivier Roy, a French expert on Islam, questioned the wisdom of arming the Saudi military, which he said had many foreign officers and had “proved unreliable in a crisis”.
Some U.S. Congressmen have vowed to block any sale of advanced weaponry to the kingdom, even though Israel has dropped its customary objections to such a deal.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said his country understands the U.S. plan in view of a shared threat from Iran.
Iran denies seeking nuclear bombs or threatening its neighbors and accuses Washington of turning Sunnis against Shi’ites in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere to tarnish its image.
“America knows very well that the source of problems in the Middle East is its one-sided and unfair support to the Zionist regime (Israel) and this occupying regime’s warmongering and expansionist policies,” Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in a statement on the U.S. arms sales on Tuesday.
Diaa Rashwan, of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Iran’s challenge was political and religious, not military — except in Israeli eyes.
Iran would respond by buying weapons from willing sellers such as Russia, China and North Korea, he predicted.
“The danger for the region is that it will enter a widescale arms race that will achieve nothing because there is no military threat that necessitates it,” Rashwan said.
Additional reporting by Fredrik Dahl in Tehran, Andrew Hammond in Riyadh, Tom Pfeiffer in Rabat and Aziz el-Kaissouni in Cairo