MIDEAST: US Arms Create New Divisions

CAIRO - Last month, Washington approved massive military-aid packages and arms sales to its Arab allies, including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and a number of smaller Gulf States. But while U.S. officials say the deals aim to bolster the "forces of moderation" in the region, some local commentators see the move as an unnecessary -- and dangerous -- provocation.

"The arms deals represent a continuation of U.S. policy aimed at creating tension and polarising the region," Ahmed Thabet, professor of political science at Cairo University told IPS.On Jul. 28, the Bush administration announced its intention of providing Egypt with a 13 billion dollar military assistance package, to be paid out over the next ten years. The deal comes within the framework of the Camp David peace accord, to which Egypt, along with Israel, has been a signatory since 1979.

The White House also announced its willingness to sell some 20 billion dollars worth of advanced U.S. weapons systems to several Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Despite a degree of domestic opposition, the sales are expected to be approved by the U.S. Congress next month.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was quoted as saying that both the aid package and weapons sales reflected Washington's commitment "to provide for the security of our allies." She added that the deals were intended to "counter the negative influences of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran."

Under the terms of the arrangement, however, Arab capitals will only be eligible to purchase defence-oriented technologies, such as anti-missile defence and early-warning systems.

The announcements of weapons sales were followed by a high-powered tour of the region by both Rice and U.S. defence secretary Robert Gates, who together visited Egypt and Saudi Arabia. From Riyadh, Rice went on to Israel and the West Bank, while Gates continued to Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.

En route to Egypt on Jul. 31, Gates said that the unusual joint visit represented a sign of "the importance of this region in terms of U.S. vital interests."

Aside from announcing the arms deals, Rice and Gates also sought to secure Arab backing for U.S. policies in the Palestinian territories and Iraq. The two officials reportedly laid the groundwork for a U.S.-sponsored Israel-Palestine peace summit, scheduled to be held later this year, and pressed Arab governments to open embassies in Baghdad.

According to local observers, however, the overriding objective of the visit -- and of the proposed arms deals -- was to promote a Sunni-Arab axis against Iran, which Rice has described as the primary "strategic challenge" to the U.S.

"The goal of their trip was to cement an alliance of moderate Arab nations in advance of a U.S.-led war against Iran," Ibrahim Eissa, political analyst and editor-in-chief of independent daily al-Dustour told IPS. "Rice did a lot of talking about the need for a Palestinian state, but that was just window dressing."

Eissa went on to warn that a U.S.-led war with the Shia Islamic republic would be "a catastrophe" for the region. "All the American military bases in the Arab world -- in Qatar, Bahrain and other countries -- could become targets of Iranian retaliation."

Essam al-Arian, a leading member of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood movement, agreed that the visit by Rice and Gates had been less about Iraq or Palestine and more about rallying Arab allies against Tehran.

"Despite all their talk about the peace process, little of value came out of the visit," Arian told IPS. "The U.S. is simply preparing the region for another war."

According to Thabet, the proposed weapons sales, geopolitics aside, will also result in a major financial windfall for the U.S. arms industry.

"The arms deals were made to boost the American military economy, which currently faces enormous competition from France, Russia and China," he said. "The U.S. is hoping to make as much money as possible from the Gulf States, all of which are flush with record petroleum revenues."

"In the past, Washington exploited the perceived threat posed by Saddam Hussein -- despite his obvious weakness -- to justify arms sales to the Gulf," Thabet said. "Now, it's playing up the Iranian menace to sell weapons."

Further vexing local observers, the White House announced earlier this month its intention to provide Israel with 30 billion dollars of military assistance over the next decade, with the stated aim of offsetting the proposed arms sales to Arab capitals. The arrangement, approved by Washington on Aug. 16, represents a 25 percent increase from current levels of U.S. military aid to the Jewish state, which has traditionally been the foremost beneficiary of U.S. financial largesse.

Unlike the planned arms sales to its Arab allies, U.S. military aid to Israel will reportedly include a good deal of offensive weaponry, including high-precision F-22 fighter jets.

At a signing ceremony in Jerusalem, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns made no secret of Washington's policy of maintaining Israeli military supremacy in the Middle East. Pointing to Israel's position in a "violent and unstable" region, he said that Israel's military edge was "of interest to our country, and we've committed to that."

According to Gamal Mazloum, retired general and specialist in geo-strategic and defence issues, the development comes as no surprise, given Washington's longstanding bias towards the Jewish state.

"Israel will quickly obtain the latest American weapons from the closest U.S. or NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) arsenals," he told IPS. "Arab countries, meanwhile, will only receive their defence systems after four or five years.

"The U.S. is trying hard to convince its Arab allies that Iran represents a greater danger to them than Israel. When, in fact, Israel remains the overriding military threat to the Arab world."

Thabet, however, noted that the Arab-Israeli military equation could no longer be seen as a zero-sum game between rivals.

"None of the Arab governments, including Damascus, are seriously contemplating war with Israel," he said. "After all, Israel has become an ally of the ruling Arab regimes, with both working against the interests of the wider Arab public."

Copyright (c) 2007 IPS-Inter Press Service.

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