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U.S.-Saudi fighter jet deal seen clear message to Iran.

By signing a multibillion-dollar deal to sell advanced fighter jets to Saudi Arabia, the United States apparently wanted to send a clear message to Iran about its commitment to security in the volatile oil-rich Gulf region and also to "a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security." The deal came against the backdrop of mounting tensions between Iran and Arab Gulf states after these states expressed concerns over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, repeatedly accusing the Islamic Republic of interfering in their internal affairs and seeking to expand its influence in the region.

Last month's announcement of the deal also came amid growing tensions between Iran and the United States after Tehran threatened to block the Strait of Hormuz, a major shipping channel for Gulf oil, if sanctions were imposed on its oil exports. The sanctions are aimed at stopping the Islamic Republic from acquiring a nuclear bomb. The United States, which keeps its Fifth Fleet based in the Gulf, has warned it will not tolerate a closure of the strategic oil route.

However, days after Iran issued its threat, European governments agreed in principle on Jan. 4 to ban imports of Iranian oil to the European Union, but have yet to decide when such an embargo would be put in place. The EU's move dealt a blow to Tehran that crowns new Western sanctions months before an Iranian election. The EU's prospective embargo, along with tough U.S. financial measures, signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama on New Year's Eve, form a concerted Western campaign to hold back Iran's nuclear program.

The United States and other Western nations have imposed sanctions on Iran's economy over Tehran's controversial nuclear program, which they believe is being used to develop atomic weapons. Iran has repeatedly denied that allegation, saying the program is purely for energy and medical uses. The U.S.-Saudi deal also came amid growing fears that the United States or Israel might attack Iran over its nuclear program. The U.S. and Israel have said they do not rule out military action against Iran if diplomacy fails to resolve the dispute over Tehran's nuclear program.

For their part, Iran's leaders have warned they will respond to any attack by striking at Israel and the U.S. interests in the Gulf. Analysts say Iran, a major oil exporter itself, could retaliate to any attack by closing the Strait of Hormuz, the waterway where about 40 percent of all traded oil passes--likely spiking crude oil prices and delivering a significant blow to the weak global economy.

$29.4B Deal

The United States signed the $29.4 billion deal to sell advanced combat aircraft to Saudi Arabia in a long-expected move that the Obama administration said would boost Gulf security amid mounting tension with Iran. The deal is the single priciest U.S. arms sale to a foreign country, dwarfing previous multibillion-dollar sales to Saudi Arabia, for years the biggest U.S. arms buyer.

The sale covers 84 new Boeing F-15SA fighters with advanced radar equipment and digital electronic warfare systems plus upgrades of Saudi Arabia's 70 older F-15s as well as munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics. While the sale was previously approved by Congress, the White House announcement came at a moment of rising tensions in the Gulf region and illustrated deepening defense ties between Washington and Riyadh.

"This agreement serves to reinforce the strong and enduring relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia," said Andrew Shapiro, the assistant U.S. secretary of state for political-military affairs. "It demonstrates the U.S. commitment to a strong Saudi defense capability as a key component to regional security." Both the United States and Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a significant potential threat and are worried about Iran's nuclear program. Saudi Arabia, a key oil supplier, and its partners in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) - Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Oman and Bahrain - are also suspicious of Iranian regional ambitions.

U.S. officials described the advanced F-15s as designed to bolster overall Saudi defenses in an uncertain region. "In the Middle East right now, there's a number of threats," Shapiro told a news briefing in Washington last month. "Clearly one of the threats that they face, as well as other countries in the region, is Iran,"' he said. But the sale was "not solely directed" toward Iran, Shapiro said. "This is directed toward meeting our partner Saudi Arabia's defense needs," he added.

The Obama administration in October 2010 notified Congress of the proposed F-15 sale as part of a potential package valued at up to $60 billion over 10 to 15 years, including Boeing Apache AH-64 attack helicopters, munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics. The first new F-15s are expected to be delivered to Saudi Arabia in early 2015, according to an administration release.

Saudi Arabia was the biggest buyer of U.S. arms from Jan. 1, 2007 through the end of 2010, with signed agreements totaling $13.8 billion, followed by the United Arab Emirates, with $10.4 billion, according to a Dec. 15 Congressional Research Service report. Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil supplier, used F-15s and Apache helicopters in late 2009 to fight Muslim Shiite rebels who crossed the border from Yemen and seized territory inside the Kingdom.

Saudi Arabia has confirmed the deal to purchase 84 F-15SA fighter jets. "The agreement also includes munitions, spare parts, training, maintenance and logistics for several years to ensure high level of defense capabilities for the Kingdom to safeguard its people and land," the official Saudi Press Agency quoted a Defense Ministry spokesman as saying on Dec. 30. He said the deal came in line with Saudi King Abdullah's desire to strengthen the defense capabilities of Saudi forces.

Gulf Security

A political analyst with the opposition newspaper AN NAHAR has praised the Saudi-U.S. deal, saying the move is bound to bolster security in the Gulf region. "At the peak of the exchange of warnings between Tehran and Washington following [Iran's] threat to close the Strait of Hormuz, the American signing of a contract to sell 84 F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia and modernize other 70 jets came to constitute a qualitative move in bolstering the Saudi deterrence which forms the cornerstone of security in the Gulf region which is facing more dangers and challenges," Rajeh Khoury said in his column on Dec. 31.

"Does this mean that Riyadh is pouring oil on the fire? Definitely, no. Firstly, the deal has been referred to the [U.S.] Congress for endorsement since the end of 2010. Secondly, the one who is pouring oil and is playing with fire in the Gulf is the Iranian regime which continues its interference in the region, demanding a pivotal role in the region by depending on its missile display and on its nuclear drum-beating which brought it international sanctions," Khoury added.

He pointed out that while the deal will improve Saudi Arabia's defense and deterrent capabilities in the face of external threats, it will also reflect positively on the GCC states with whom it is linked in a joint defense pact signed in 2001. He said that the pact's Article Five stated that "bolstering the GCC states' air defenses has become an urgent strategic demand."

"It is true that Washington wanted to send a message confirming its commitment to strengthen relations with Riyadh and guarantee its strong defensive capabilities. But the deal also constitutes an important factor in regional security in which the 'Peninsula Shield' forces play a pivotal role. It is no secret that the pillar of Gulf security is Saudi Arabia's defensive and deterrent capabilities," Khoury said.

Saudi Central Role

Charles Jabour, a political analyst with AL JOUMHOURIYA newspaper, said that the U.S.-Saudi aircraft deal is aimed, among other things, at refocusing attention on Saudi Arabia's central role in preserving security in the region. Noting that the fast-moving developments in the 10 -month popular uprising in Syria will shift attention to the Iranian issue, Jabour said the fighter jet deal is aimed at "refocusing light on the central role of Saudi Arabia which has recently played key roles in coordination over the Yemeni issue and the Syrian crisis."

The deal "shattered the United States' classical theory that Israel's strength can guarantee stability in the region. Consequently, Saudi Arabia's strength has become a factor of stability, too," Jabour said in a news analysis on Dec. 31. He added that the deal was also intended "to strengthen and back the Saudi role in the face of Tehran. It is normal that the main theme of confrontation is directed against Iran."

Following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, Jabour said, the U.S. Administration has decided to support a defensive formula but without it directly playing military roles in it. "Hence, the bolstering of Saudi Arabia's position is vital for them [Americans]," he added. "Amid Arab revolutions, the partnership between the United States and moderate [Arab] regimes has shifted to a partnership with the Arabs and Muslims, transcending the regimes. It is a partnership with the peoples embodied in a new relationship with the Arab and Muslim worlds," Jabour said.
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Publication:The Weekly Middle East Reporter (Beirut, Lebanon)
Geographic Code:7SAUD
Date:Jan 13, 2012
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