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Arms deals maintain regional imbalance

As leaked US diplomatic cables reveal that not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia has urged Washington to attack Tehran, the US is using arms deals to maintain the region's traditional strategic balances

Ahmed Eleiba, Sunday 5 Dec 2010
Arms deal
AH-64 Delta Apache Longbow helicopter in Conroe, Texas, in this September 12, 2010 (AP)
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Last week, Wikileaks began publishing more than 250,000 US diplomatic cables, revealing, among other things, that Saudi Arabia pressed the US administration to strike Iran and terminate its nuclear programme. But US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates countered that if the US were to do so it would only delay the programme’s development by two to three years. 

Saudi Arabia refused to comment on the Wikileaks reports, but military experts assert that Riyadh has chosen to pursue a strong defence system to deter its neighbour from one day becoming a nuclear power.

General Jamal Mazloum, an expert at Naif Arab University for Security Sciences (NAUSS) in Riyadh, told Ahram Online that under the current US administration there is a distinction between reality and delusion in strategic policies. Accordingly, reality dictates that Washington is incapable of launching another war in the region since it is already tangled up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are, however, concerns that Israel could unilaterally strike Iran. Though it would first need to consult Washington, which has impressed upon Tel Aviv that it does not wish to open another war front in the Middle East and that diplomatic channels remain open with Iran.

Arab states realise that their defensive capabilities are not as sophisticated as those of their Iranian neighbour, as stated by Mohamed Megahed El-Zayyat, an Egyptian expert on Gulf affairs at the National Centre for Middle East Studies. El-Zayyat believes that Arab states are lagging one decade behind Iran. As a result, there are real threats looming over Saudi Arabia’s defences. 

Meanwhile, Iran continues to develop its conventional capabilities which are at the core of its strength. Egyptian General Sameh Seif El-Yazel, an expert on regional security issues, confirmed this, citing Iran’s strong infrastructure, especially the Revolutionary Guard and Basij. “Even if we defuse Gulf fears over Iran’s nuclear ambition, the US will bear the burden of the discrepancy in defences that Dr El-Zayyat spoke of,” El-Yazel told Ahram Online. 

Saudi Arabia is especially vulnerable in the north, where it shares a border with an unstable Iraq. Retired Egyptian Brigadier General Safwat El-Zayyat told Ahram Online that the time has come for Arabs to bear the consequences of Iraq’s departure from the Arab defence umbrella, after serving in the past as the first line of defence against Iran. In Iraq’s absence, the Iranian menace has emerged and the combined capabilities of Gult Cooperation Council states will not adequately fill the vacuum for some time to come, especially considering that Israel won’t permit the same scenario as Iraq to arise again.

Nevertheless, the Saudi kingdom is benefiting from Iran’s slower armament due to US sanctions. General El-Yazel revealed that Saudi Arabia was about to finalise an arms deal similar to its US contract with Russia, but for less money. However, Washington pulled the rug out from underneath Moscow. Infuriated, the Russians announced that a parallel deal, consisting of P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles with a range of 300 kilometres, would be completed with the Syrians, Iran’s major ally. 

In response, Israel, according to a report in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, threatened to sell arms to Russia’s enemies if it went through with the deal, demanding explicit details of the agreement. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak then visited Moscow and signed an agreement of military understanding, authorising, as a result, the sale of unmanned small planes, crucial to the Russian air force. 

Consequently, Moscow told Damascus that the transaction would be postponed, though in reality Barak had demanded that Russia cancel the deal. An informed Syrian diplomat confirmed this story, informing Ahram Online that Syria would no longer rely on the Russians.

In short, it seems the regional balance has remained tipped in Israel’s favour. Israel was able to block Iran’s ally Syria from acquiring new weapons and, with Washington’s blessings, obtained a written pledge from Arab states guaranteeing Tel Aviv’s regional military supremacy. The result: Gulf states cannot use their new American weapons against America’s dearest ally, Israel.

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