Washington Post: The United States and Iran exchanged tough accusations on Monday as the Bush administration unveiled a huge package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf countries expected to total at least $20 billion, as well as separate 10-year agreements for $43 billion in military aid to Israel and Egypt. Washington Post
By Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2007; A15
SHANNON, Ireland, July 30 — The United States and Iran exchanged tough accusations on Monday as the Bush administration unveiled a huge package of arms sales to Saudi Arabia and five other Gulf countries expected to total at least $20 billion, as well as separate 10-year agreements for $43 billion in military aid to Israel and Egypt.
Less than a week after the second round of the new U.S.-Iran dialogue, Tehran charged that the U.S. plan to sell sophisticated weapons to the six Arab states will only further destabilize the volatile region.
U.S. policy “is creating fear and concerns in the countries of the region and trying to harm the good relations between these countries,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told reporters in Tehran. “What the Persian Gulf region needs is security, stability, peace, prosperity and economic development.”
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates left for the Middle East on Monday to discuss details of the arms sales as well as efforts to stabilize Iraq and generate progress in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.
“For the secretary of state and the secretary of defense to travel together to any region, including the Middle East, at a minimum is very rare, if not unprecedented,” Gates said en route to Egypt. “I think that it is a statement first of all of the importance of this region in terms of U.S. vital interests and the importance we attach to reassuring our friends out here of our staying power.”
Rice dismissed Tehran’s concerns and countered that Iran’s meddling and influence are behind growing insecurity in the Middle East.
“There isn’t a doubt that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of the Middle East that we want to see,” Rice told reporters traveling with her en route to a refueling stop in Ireland.
America’s top diplomat blasted Iran for “support for terrorism that is a threat to the democratic forces in Lebanon, support for the most radical forces in the Palestinian territories . . . or support for Shiite militias and the transfer of technologies that are endangering the lives of our soldiers and endangering a free Iraq.”
U.S. officials said that Iran is not the only reason behind the new packages of weapons sales and military aid, but Tehran was the constant undercurrent in briefings by U.S. officials in Washington and on the road.
“Iran has worried everybody in the region. It supports everything that the rest of the world is trying to defend against,” R. Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said in a telephone briefing.
Burns said that Washington had tried to “open the door” to Iran in two rounds of talks involving the top U.S. and Iranian envoys in Baghdad, and through negotiations led by the European Union on Iran’s nuclear program. “And we’ve been rebuffed by Iran,” he said.
Rice and Gates will meet Arab leaders in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, over the next two days to discuss the new packages. Rice insisted that the Bush administration has not imposed demands on its allies in exchange for the arms and aid deals.
“This isn’t an issue of quid pro quo,” Rice told reporters. “We are working with these states to fight back extremism.”
But in Washington, Burns acknowledged that the United States has some expectations. “Given the fact that Iraq is the number one American foreign policy interest globally, we would want our friends in the region to be supportive not only of what the United States is doing in Iraq, but of the Iraqi government itself,” he said.
Washington has only a notional list of the weapons sought by allies and has not provided specifics. But Saudi Arabia is expected to receive upgrades to its warplanes, new naval vessels and Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), which turn standard bombs into “smart” precision-guided bombs, U.S. officials say. Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman are expected to make smaller purchases.
The $20 billion figure is seen as a “floor,” and more assistance could be forthcoming, a senior defense official said, but requests that ultimately must go to Congress have not been finalized.
To shore up two other allies in the region, the Bush administration plans to wrap up new military assistance agreements providing $30 billion in aid to Israel and $13 billion to Egypt over 10 years, the State Department announced.
In contrast to past objections over large arms sales to Arab countries, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that his government will have no objections to the arms sales to Arab governments.
“We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states, and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran,” Olmert said at a weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
Key Democrats, including House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), are already voicing reservations about the arms package.
Rice said that consultations had already begun on Capitol Hill. “I’m certain that we can convince Congress first of all that we know how to maintain our obligations in terms of accountability for the security packages. We know how to be aware of and responsive to everyone’s concerns that there not be any shift in the military balance between the parties in the region,” Rice said, referring to concerns that Arab nations would endanger Israel’s security.
Staff writer Josh White, traveling with Gates, contributed to this report.