Tuesday, July 31, 2007

US "arms-for-allies" deal could spark Mid East arms race

The US has trumped its neocon ambition of spreading democracy throughout the Middle East by endorsing the very Arab authoritarian allies it denounced 25 months ago.

The so-called "moderate" Arab states - Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states - are to receive massive boosts to their military with a delightful US$33bn package. Under the deal, America's Arab allies will receive sophisticated weaponry, including air-to-air missiles, satellite-guided weapons, and upgrades to their airforce.

To silence criticism from Washington's pro-Israel lobby, the US will hike up their aid to Israel by 25% to US$30bn over a ten-year period. Although Israel's friends in Congress have vowed to oppose the Saudi deal, Israeli PM Ehud Olmert has come out in full support of the arms deal, citing Iran as its principal threat.

Iran obsession

Washington's desperate efforts to counter Iran's growing power in the region may fall short of their desired aim. Its attempt to forge an Arab-Israeli alliance to confront Iran will be at the very least fragile. Whilst Iran is perceived as the devil by most Sunni Arab regimes, the Islamic Republic fairs rather well in the Arab street. Many Arabs consider Iran as a defiant Muslim country standing up to US 'imperialism', Israeli aggression and defending the Arab/Islamic struggle. In fact, most Arabs have little love for their own US-backed autocratic regimes. Arab governments can only go so far in publicly warming to Israel before unrest and internal pressure becomes too much to bare. Lebanon is one great example of a pro-American leadership paralysed by public dissent.

It should also be noted that the autocratic Arab states are not immune to the instability in the region. Bashar al-Assad probably enjoys more security than his co-dictators. As Islamic fundamentalism increases within Arab societies, the risk of internal conflicts and coup attempts loom as credible dangers. There are no guarantees against an Islamist coup in Egypt or Jordan. Or have the Americans still not learnt their lesson from Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution?

Islamic radicals will be pleased with the US arms deal as it only highlights what they've been saying all along ... that Arab leaders are American and Israeli pawns, and they must be overthrown. No doubt, the more countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt move towards the US-Israeli axis, the easier it becomes for Islamists to recruit jihadists.

The Russian presence

Such desperate measures by the US were not entirely unforeseen. Whilst the Americans have been bogged down in Iraq, Russia has been working overtime to re-impose its presence in the region. Lucrative Russian arm deals to Syria and Iran have been ongoing since the Iraq invasion, with Israel attesting that some of that sophisticated hardware was used by Hizballah in the Second Lebanon War.

In the latest string of Russian arms sales, the Jerusalem Post revealed that the Kremlin has attempted to counter the American deal by signing a billion-dollar package to supply Iran with 250 advanced Sukhoi-30 fighter jets (pictured). This follows another major tri-nation military contract involving Russia, Syria and Iran only a few weeks ago, as reported by the London-based Arabic newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat. The purchase included the supply of 400 Russian T-72 tanks to Syria.

The buck doesn't just stop with the sale of sophisticated weapon systems. The Russian daily, Kommersant, divulged last year Moscow's plans to build a naval base on Syria's Mediterranean coast, making it Russia's first military base outside a neighbouring country. The journal also reported that the Russians would deploy ballistic missiles in Syria to protect the site. Such a deployment would extensively cover Syria from an air assault.

Nuclear hypocrisy?

Whilst all the commotion is being made of Iran's Russian-backed nuclear program, America's Arab allies (primarily Egypt and Saudi Arabia) have in the past year hinted at developing their own "civilian" nuclear program. Recently converted Western ally, Libya's maverick leader Muammar Qaddafi, just signed a deal with French President Nicholas Sarkozy for Paris to construct a nuclear reactor in Libya. It was only three years ago that Qaddafi came clean and renounced his secret nuclear program to win Western approval.

The contents of the French-Libyan accord acutely echo the Russian-Iranian nuclear pact that has been at the centre of international controversy. Like Iran, the Libyans claim that their nuclear project is for civilian purposes only. Of course, this time the major powers bar Germany have accepted this argument. I highly doubt the Libyans will be summoned to the UN Security Council, particularly considering the Americans have publicly endorsed the deal.

Israel avoiding peace

American double standards are not new, but their continued mishaps in this volatile region have laid the ground-works for a Middle Eastern arms race. Olmert may be praising the flurry of weapon sales to its neighbours today, but the time will come when Israel will be confronted by an Islamic world able to fight tough in combat. One ambiguity in assessing such dangerous policy is whether its Arab neighbourhood will remain under the control of America's proxy dictators or not. Iran's revolution 28 years ago is a solid indication that there are plenty of diehard anti-Israelis, bent on its destruction, eager to take the reigns.

Israel should consider itself fortunate that the only leader declaring his desire for the Jewish state to be "wiped off the map" is Iranian. If they succeed in thwarting the Iranian threat, who will be Israel's next major menace? Will its existence be defined by constant war and conflict with its neighbours? Despite its military might, the Israelis must accept their reality ... they can't fight an entire world forever.

Military superiority will not ensure Israel any victory or survival, with Lebanon once again proving the perfect case. The region has succumbed to their fear and paranoia of one another. At a time when direct negotiations and compromise are sorely needed, the players of this never-ending conflict have chosen yet again a dangerous direction with potentially devastating consequences.

I suspect Russian and American arms manufacturers will be kept busy for the next decade as the Mid East arms race moves into full swing.

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