Confronting Iran

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The Times – Leading Article: For an American secretary of state and secretary of defence to visit the Middle East jointly is rare, and an indication of the strategic and political importance of this turbulent region. More unusual still is an announcement by Washington of huge arms deals to Israel and key Arab states without immediate uproar and accusations, by both sides, of bias. The Times

Leading Article

Not only America is nervous of Tehran’s intentions

For an American secretary of state and secretary of defence to visit the Middle East jointly is rare, and an indication of the strategic and political importance of this turbulent region. More unusual still is an announcement by Washington of huge arms deals to Israel and key Arab states without immediate uproar and accusations, by both sides, of bias. The new $63 billion package, however, has been calibrated to ensure the continued strategic balance among America’s allies in the region. While bolstering military aid to Israel by $30 billion, an increase of 25 per cent, the Americans are also to send arms to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. The aim is not to change the military balance between Israel and its neighbours, but to help governments to cope with what Condoleezza Rice has called, correctly, the greatest threat to security and stability in the Middle East: Iran.

For Washington, the threat posed by Tehran’s expansionist aims and nuclear ambitions is now a higher priority than the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. This assessment is shared by all those leaders who met Dr Rice and Robert Gates at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday. Like America, they see Iranian support for Hamas and Hezbollah, its attempt to dominate Iraq and its drive to build a nuclear weapons capability as a direct challenge to their interests. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are determined to stop this outbreak of Persian nationalism, and bolstering their military capability is part of their response.

Indeed, the US package for Saudi Arabia includes missile defences, early-warning systems, air power and naval upgrades. Only a few years ago this would have been as unacceptable to Israel � which has no peace treaty with Riyadh � as it may still be to many members of Congress. It is still controversial. The US aim is as much to rein in Saudi policy in Iraq as it is to confront Iran. Increasingly, the Saudis have been arming and funding the Sunni minority in Iraq, and the weapons have been finding their way to extremists allied to al-Qaeda, who are using them to kill coalition troops and promote sectarian violence against Shia groups and the Iraqi Government. In a rare display of anger, Washington recently denounced this intervention by its long-standing ally. The Saudi Government, fearful of any US withdrawal from Iraq, should heed the candid warning. For although Riyadh may exercise restraint, it has done little to crack down on the religious extremists, wealthy maverick members of the Royal Family and some quasi-legitimate foundations that are arming Sunnis. It is a counterproductive policy with a predictable outcome: a backlash from the Shias and increasing dependence by Iraq’s Government on Iran.

Mr Gates, who travels on to Riyadh, will ask King Abdullah to do far more to underpin the al-Maliki administration in Baghdad. He must make it clear to the Saudis and their Gulf neighbours that the US will not maintain the present high troop level in Iraq indefinitely. The more that the al-Maliki Government is supported by its Arab neighbours, the less the scope for Iranian hegemony.

A significant increase in arms in a volatile region involves risk. Washington’s decision to back its allies demonstrates a commitment and trust that has to be matched. Moderate Arabs have a vital role in stabilising Iraq and the region. It is one that they must play responsibly and actively.

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