US arms deal targets Saudis' Iran worries

$1.4b sale being finalised as show of support to reassure Arab ally about Iran nuclear deal

WASHINGTON • In a move meant to reassure a vital Persian Gulf ally about the Iran nuclear deal, the Pentagon is finalising a US$1 billion ($S1.4 billion) arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for the Saudi war effort against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and Yemen.

Details of the pact were being worked out ahead of a visit to the White House yesterday by King Salman of Saudi Arabia, senior administration officials said on Thursday, adding that the deal must be approved by Congress before it is final. The two leaders are also expected to discuss additional military training that the US can provide as Saudi Arabia adopts a more muscular stance in the region.

The weapons deal, although not the largest between the US and Saudi Arabia, comes at a time when the Obama administration is promising Arab allies that it will back them against what many Arab governments view as a rising Iran.

It also comes as the Middle East is descending into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks.

The weapons deal... comes at a time when the Obama administration is promising Arab allies that it will back them against what many Arab governments view as a rising Iran.

Administration officials said there are no warplanes included in the agreement and stressed that, at the moment, the only country in the Middle East that will get F-35 fighter jets, considered the jewel of America's future arsenal, is Israel. They also said the sale to Saudi Arabia primarily comprised missiles that fit the F-15 fighter jets it previously bought from the US.

The pending weapons sale has been criticised by human rights activists who say the US is supplying arms to Saudi combat operations in a conflict in Yemen that has taken many civilian lives.

"Transferring arms to resupply Saudi military operations in Yemen emboldens the US-supported coalition to prolong its military offensive, rather than engender concern for the growing humanitarian crisis," Mr Paul O'Brien, vice-president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, said.

King Salman is widely seen as being more vocal than his predecessor in his unhappiness with the US. A recent trove of documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry illustrated a near obsession among the kingdom's leaders with Iran.

Obama administration officials said they understood Saudi Arabia's concerns about Iran's behaviour in the region, including its support of terrorist groups, and about the economic benefits that Teheran may receive under the nuclear deal.

But for the US, issues in Yemen, Iraq and Syria are at least as important as those involving Iran.

One official acknowledged that the White House is trying to walk a delicate line between reassuring the kingdom that the Iran nuclear deal doesn't meant that the US backs Iran in the region and urging the kingdom to exercise restraint in Yemen.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2015, with the headline 'US arms deal targets Saudis' Iran worries'. Print Edition | Subscribe