Israel’s regional military edge at risk as Obama may give Arab states advanced weapons

Obama reportedly might provide Arab Gulf states with advanced weapons, possibly violating a congressional mandate that requires US assurance of Israel’s regional military superiority.

The Obama administration is considering arming Sunni Arab Gulf states with advanced missile defense systems and sophisticated weapons in an effort to ease regional fears over a potential nuclear deal with Iran, the Washington Times reported.

US officials are quoted as saying that the likelihood that such a system will be sold to those nations is “real” and could become a central aspect of closed-door talks between US President Barack Obama and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at Camp David this month.

The secrecy surrounding the weapons dealings with the Saudis stems from the fact that Obama administration officials are trying to find a way of placating Riyadh without violating a 2008 congressional mandate that requires Washington to ensure Israel’s military superiority in the region, another official told the Times.

“We have to make sure any transfer of weapons to anyone in the region won’t undermine Israel’s ability to defend itself,” said one of the officials who spoke with The Times. Such sales to the Saudis may require the White House to upgrade Israel’s arsenal in order to maintain its regional military superiority, as prescribed by American law.

Ties between Washington and Riyadh have been cooling since the Obama administration began working toward a nuclear deal with Iran.

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Arab leaders have repeatedly expressed fears that a nuclear agreement with Iran and the lifting of sanctions against the Islamic Republic would enable it to produce a nuclear bomb, acquire weapons and upgrade its military. The Sunni Gulf states, who feel directly threatened by Tehran, fear such a deal could offset a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

Shi’ite Iran and the Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia are regional rivals waging a proxy war through Syria’s civil war. Saudi Arabia and Iran also support rival political parties in Lebanon, and the kingdom is leading airstrikes against Iran-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Times quotes officials who have privately said that the Obama administration is weighing whether or not to offer Saudi Arabia, already a major buyer of American and European weaponry, deep-penetrating GBU-28 bunker buster bombs, which Washington has so far been willing to provide only  to Israel.

GBU-28 bunker buster

An American GBU-28 bunker buster on the way to its target. (Wikicommons)

The discussions are taking place under a cloak of secrecy, the Times reports. The Saudi Embassy in the US has declined to comment.

The report describes the creation of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), or Aegis defense system, against missiles stretching from Saudi Arabia to Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Such a deployment would require an agreement from Israel.

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A source with ties to one of the GCC countries described the situation to the Times as “a defense-industrial complex salesman’s dream” because the Obama administration is poised to approve “anything that helps them get their deal with Iran.”

“In crude terms, the administration is going to try to buy the GCC nations off,” said the source.