Wall Street Journal: The Obama administration has quietly drawn up plans to provide a key Persian Gulf ally with thousands of advanced “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions, part of a stepped-up U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran.
The Wall Street Journal
WASHINGTON—The Obama administration has quietly drawn up plans to provide a key Persian Gulf ally with thousands of advanced “bunker-buster” bombs and other munitions, part of a stepped-up U.S. effort to build a regional coalition to counter Iran.
The proposed sale to the United Arab Emirates would vastly expand the existing capabilities of the country’s air force to target fixed structures, which could include bunkers and tunnels—the kind of installations where Iran is believed to be developing weapons.
The move represents one way the Obama administration intends to keep Iran in check, as it struggles to find adequate backing for new United Nations sanctions—even after a report by the U.N. nuclear watchdog concluded this week that Tehran has been developing the technologies needed to produce a nuclear weapon.
The oil-rich U.A.E. traditionally has had strong trade relations with Iran. But the ruling al Nahyan family in Abu Dhabi, the Emirati capital, is seen as one of the most hawkish against Iran among the monarchies in the Persian Gulf, and the country’s leadership has openly expressed fear of an Iranian nuclear weapon.
Tehran also has regularly claimed sovereignty over three of the U.A.E.’s Persian Gulf islands, though it denies its nuclear program is for anything but peaceful purposes.
The proposed package for U.A.E. is expected to be formally presented to Congress in the coming days and would authorize the sale of up to 4,900 joint direct attack munitions, or JDAMs, along with other weapons systems.
The sale reflects the Obama administration’s focus on curbing Iranian influence as it pulls the last U.S. troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. U.S. defense officials say the U.S. will have an estimated 40,000 troops in the region after the pullout.
The U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency in a report this week concluded Iran has conducted research on developing nuclear weapons, a finding putting pressure on the Obama administration to take new steps against the country’s rulers.
Iranian officials have acknowledged that international sanctions are hurting the local economy and Tehran’s ability to access the international financial system. Still, U.S. officials acknowledged there are no signs this financial pain is causing Tehran to rethink its pursuit of nuclear technologies.
With many U.S. sanctions already in place and U.N. Security Council permanent members Russia and China opposed to new sanctions, the administration has few other levers.
The Obama administration is trying to build up the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which comprises Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, U.A.E. and Kuwait, as a unified counterweight to Iran.
In recent months, the U.S. has begun holding a regular strategic dialogue with the GCC bloc. And the Pentagon has been trying to improve intelligence-sharing and military compatibility among the six countries.
“For them to be a regional leader, you have to have that capacity, you have to enable them, they have to have credibility,” a U.S. military official said.
Recent arms deals include a record $60 billion plan to sell Saudi Arabia advanced F-15 aircraft, some to be equipped 2,000-pound JDAMs and other powerful munitions. The Pentagon recently notified Congress of plans to sell Stinger missiles and medium-range, air-to-air missiles to Oman.
The U.S. has also sought to build up missile-defense systems across the region, with the goal of building an integrated network to defend against short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles from Iran.
Tehran has responded to the recent IAEA report, and to discussions in Israel about the possibility of an attack on Iran, with harsh warnings. “Anybody who has an idea to attack Iran should be prepared to receive a strong slap and an iron fist,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Thursday.
It is unclear how effective the U.A.E.’s new bombs would be, in the event of a conflict, at breaching Iranian fortifications, some of which are believed to be deep enough to withstand many direct strikes. The Pentagon has been developing larger guided bombs that officials say could do more damage.
The Pentagon and the State Department have been laying the groundwork for the U.A.E. deal in private discussions with Congress, where the size of the proposed sale has taken some by surprise.
The U.A.E. has a large fleet of advanced U.S.-made F-16 fighters that could carry the bunker-busters. The U.A.E. currently has several hundred JDAMs in its arsenal, and the 4,900 in the new proposal would represent a massive buildup, officials said.
Administration officials said that the “augmented” U.A.E. stockpile would allow the country to meet its projected training needs, assume an expanded security role in the region and beyond, and deter Iran, according to people familiar with the discussions with lawmakers.
The U.A.E.’s fighters, equipped with JDAMs and other munitions, would have “a decisive edge” over Iran’s fleet of aged planes, said Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Iran has to take the U.A.E. seriously,” Mr. Cordesman said.
JDAMs are made by Boeing Co., though such a sale would be facilitated by the U.S. government. Major proposed arms deals aren’t made public until after Congress receives formal written notification from the administration that includes estimated cost and specific systems that would be included. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on the proposed sale. The U.A.E.’s U.S. ambassador also didn’t comment.
Once the administration announces the proposed sale, lawmakers can try to block the deal by passing legislation.
A serious congressional challenge isn’t expected in this case, according to people involved in the discussions, though in 2008, a proposed $123 million sale of 900 JDAMs to Saudi Arabia ran into months of congressional objection before clearing.
Officials said the U.A.E. package is seen as less controversial because the country is viewed as less hostile toward Israel. The deal would include other types of advanced munitions in addition to the JDAMs. Details have been closely held because of the sensitivities in the region.
Proponents of the deal point to the U.A.E.’s support for U.S. efforts to isolate Iran, and its critical backing to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization air campaign in Libya. Officials said providing JDAMs and other U.S. weapons systems to the U.A.E. will make it easier for the country to participate in similar missions in the future.
The pace of U.S. arms deals around the Middle East slowed after the outbreak of pro-democracy protests earlier this year, as President Barack Obama sought to balance calls for democratic reforms with the need to keep a unified front against Iran.
Last month, the State Department put a proposed $53 million arms sale to Bahrain on hold after some lawmakers and human-rights groups protested the monarchy’s violent crackdown on protesters earlier this year.
Some lawmakers recently also have threatened to block the proposed sale of attack helicopters to Turkey, citing the breakdown in Ankara’s relationship with Israel and its threats against Cyprus.
But arms sales to key allies are once again being fast-tracked by the administration, despite the potential for controversy, officials say. “We in the military are poised to get back to normalcy,” the U.S. military official said of sales to key allies.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said on Thursday that a nuclear-armed Iran was unacceptable to the U.S. and its allies. But he said using force was clearly “a last resort” and could have unintended consequences—casting some doubt on the U.S. willingness to launch a military strike on Iran. A strike on Iran “could have a serious impact in the region and it could have a serious impact on U.S. forces in the region,” he said.
—Farnaz Fassihi contributed to this article.