Even though the details of the deal are classified and far from being finalized, 114 members of the U.S. House, (96 Democrats and 18 Republicans) rushed a letter to President George W. Bush on August 2 declaring their intention to vote against any sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and the five other member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates). The letter was organized by New York Democratic Congressmen Anthony Weiner and Jerrold Nadler, who staged a protest outside the Saudi consulate in New York City on July 29 – timed to coincide with Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns’ press briefing in Washington outlining how the arms sales fit into U.S. Middle Eastern strategy.
The thrust of their stated argument is that “Saudi Arabia has not been a true ally in the war on terror or furthering the United States interests in the Middle East.” Yet, the purpose of the estimated $20 billion arms deal is to draw the kingdom closer into an alignment to counter the most dangerous threat in the region, Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on July 30 that the arms will “support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran.” The military aid to the Saudis and Gulf states will run in parallel with agreements to increase military aid to Israel ($30 billion, signed in Jerusalem August 16) and to Egypt ($13 billion) over the next decade. According to Secretary Rice, the arms sale to Cairo will “strengthen Egypt’s ability to address shared strategic goals” with Israel and the other Sunni Arab states. The best way to build new diplomatic and security alliances is to pull otherwise diverse states together against a common enemy.
It should be remembered that last summer, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan openly criticized Iran’s Hezbollah proxy for raiding into Israel, triggering over four weeks of heavy fighting. The Arab states gave Israel the diplomatic space it needed to mount military operations aimed at crippling Hezbollah in Lebanon.
In his March 29 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Under Secretary Burns outlined the new regional dynamics in which Lebanon plays a pivotal role, “We are also working with France, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, and others to signal our strong support for Prime Minister Siniora’s democratically elected government in Lebanon, to enforce the arms embargo imposed by Security Council Resolution 1701, and to prevent Iran and Syria from rearming Hizballah. We have stationed two carrier battle groups in the Gulf, not to provoke Iran, but to reassure our friends in the region that it remains an area of vital importance to us. And at the regional level, Secretary Rice last autumn launched a series of ongoing discussions with our Gulf Cooperation Council partners, as well as Egypt and Jordan, regarding issues of shared concern, including most especially the threat posed by Iran.”
Iran, with its support for militias in foreign lands, its nuclear ambitions, and its aggressive Shi’a faith, poses a much greater threat to the Sunni Arab world than does Israel, which has no intention of toppling Arab regimes and converting their people to its religious doctrines. Iran does have these ambitions, directed at both Jews and Sunni Muslims. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said Israel will not lobby against the new arms sales to Saudi Arabia, as it has against previous sales.
On August 9, the Tehran Times, the self-proclaimed “loud voice of the Islamic Revolution,” highlighted a speech given in Lebanon by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, which attacked the proposed U.S. arms sales as an attempt to “drown the Mideast in wars.” The speech was given at an event marking the terrorist group’s alleged “victory” in last summer’s war, and follows Nasrallah’s claim that his fighters have been fully rearmed and trained for a new round of conflict.
The Congressional opposition to the Saudi-GCC weapons deal is primarily another aspect of liberal-isolationist opposition to the Iraq War, and to any continued geopolitical involvement of the United States in the region. Weiner and Nadler, in particular, have been in the forefront of the “cut and run” caucus. Those who signed their letter don’t just want out of Iraq, however, they want to withdraw completely from everywhere “east of Suez.” Such a retreat would leave a security nightmare in its wake.
Ever since the pro-Western, secularizing Shah of Iran was overthrown by the radical Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, the Middle East has been ripped by the Shi’a-Persian/Sunni-Arab divide. Far more have died in this sectarian struggle than have ever fallen in combat with Israel or Western “imperialists.” Iraq was the front line state against Iran under Saddam Hussein, who became the hero of the Arab world during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. But he brought disaster upon himself when he invaded his ally Kuwait in 1990.
The two countries with the strongest military potentials in the Gulf region are Iran and Iraq. Washington needs a friendly regime in either Tehran or Baghdad. Whatever the proximate cause cited for the invasion of Iraq, the real strategic objective was to replace Saddam with a new government with which the U.S. could cooperate against Iran.
But Iraq is still in turmoil, with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s Shia dominated government in crisis. American commanders have made considerable progress in winning the respect of Sunni tribal leaders and turning them against al-Qaeda. But a key part of this improved relationship is a pledge to protect the Sunnis from genocidal attacks by radical Shi’a death squads and Iranian-backed militias.
U.S. forces are again engaged, as they have been during several prior phases of the Iraq campaign, in beating down the pro-Iranian militia of Muqtada al-Sadr, who also heads a powerful Shi’ite bloc in Iraq’s legislative assembly. It is not clear who will win the power struggle within the Shi’ite majority in Iraq, so it is only prudent to strengthen the next line of defense, either to support a unified Iraq or to sustain anti-Iranian forces in a fragmented Iraq.
Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states do not have the manpower to combat Iran, so they need superior weapons which are interoperable with those of the United States. Cooperation in the areas of missile defense, maritime patrol, counterterrorism, and energy security is moving ahead with U.S.-led joint exercises. American trainers, advisors and support personnel will also have to accompany the new weapon systems.
Though a minority in Iraq, the Sunnis are a majority in the Muslim world. In addition to providing material and diplomatic support for what is called by the State Department the Six Plus Two coalition (the GCC plus Egypt and Jordan), a tilt towards the Sunni would also help with Turkey whose governing Islamic Party has caused concerns about the future orientation of the country. But the Turks have long been at odds with the minority Alawi sect of Shi’a, which rules Syria, who people are majority Sunni.
For Congress to block the arms sales would undermine what trust there is between Washington and the Sunni world. It would also fuel the propaganda of both al-Qaeda and Tehran that alleges America is at war with all of Islam, when, in fact, U.S. security interests are in line with those of a majority of Muslims regarding the rising threat from Iran.