- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 31, 2012

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — While Iran’s military loudly trumpets every new project or purported advance in hopes of rattling the United States and its Gulf Arab allies, Washington is quietly answering with an array of proposed arms sales across the region as part of a wider effort to counter Tehran.

In the past two months, the Defense Department has notified Congress of possible dealstotaling more than $11.3 billion to Gulf states such as Qatar and Kuwait, seen as some of America’s critical front-line partners in containing Iran and protecting oil shipping lanes.

The proposed sales, including Patriot missile batteries and Apache attack helicopters, are still modest compared with massive Gulf purchases, such as Saudi Arabia’s $60 billion package last year. That deal included more than 80 new F-15SA fighter jets, missiles, radar warning systems and other equipment.

The recent flurry of expected sales from U.S. firms, approved by the Pentagon and outlined in notifications to Congress, underscores the growing emphasis among nervous Gulf states on seeking quick upgrades to existing firepower and defensive networks.

The arms sales need congressional approval, but usually few objections are raised for key allies such as Gulf nations.

Gulf worries increase

Gulf worries about possible military action against Iran have increased, with diplomatic efforts making little headway in easing the showdown over Tehran’s nuclear program, which the West and others fear eventually could develop atomic weapons. Iran says it only seeks reactors for energy and medical uses.

Washington plans to keep at least 13,500 troops in Kuwait — down slightly from the current 15,000 — but with an expanded mission as a potential rapid-reaction force for the region. The Pentagon also has scores of warplanes and other assets across the Gulf, including air bases in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

At sea, the U.S. Navy plans to lead maneuvers in September that include mine-sweeping drills in a clear response to Iran’s threats to block oil tankers from passing through the Strait of Hormuz at the mouth of the Gulf in retaliation for the tightening Western sanctions.

The United States also is boosting its Gulf flotilla, directed by the Navy’s 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Among the additions are a floating assault base aboard the retrofitted USS Ponce and accelerated deployment of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis to ensure two carriers are in the Gulf region at all times.

Iranian bluster

“We are seeing more and more bluster from the Iranian side and the U.S. and Gulf allies showing the Iranians they are a united front,” said Theodore Karasik, a regional security expert at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Gulf states are nervous. They show this nervousness by buying more weapons.”

Among the proposed U.S. sales is a $4.2 billion package to Kuwait for 60 Patriot missiles and related systems to “strengthen its homeland defense and deter regional threats,” the Defense Department said in a statement. Pending congressional approval, Kuwait also could buy a $49 million arsenal of 300 Hellfire II missiles, which can be launched from helicopters or drones.

For Qatar, which hosts part of the U.S. Central Command, the Defense Department is seeking clearance for a $6.6 billion air-support upgrade that includes 24 AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, 12 Blackhawk helicopters and 22 Seahawk helicopters, with options to buy six more.

Oman, which shares control of Hormuz with Iran, is seeking an $86 million purchase that includes 55 Sidewinder missiles as part of plans to upgrade its F-16 fighter fleet.

Shopping in Europe

For decades, the Gulf looked mostly to Washington for its weapons, but European arms deals also appear on the rise.

In Berlin, German government spokesman Georg Streiter said there has been an “expression of interest” by Qatar in about 200 Leopard II tanks. A similar Leopard tank deal with Saudi Arabia was reported last year by German media.

In May, Saudi Arabia signed a $3 billion deal with Britain for air force training planes apparently linked to a 2007 agreement to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon fighters.

The weapons requests also reinforce thetoughening stance against Iran by main rival Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states. The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council repeatedly has warned Tehran about “meddling” in Gulf affairs. Saudi Arabia and Qatar have taken a leading role in supporting Syrian rebels trying to topple Bashar Assad’s regime, which is Iran’s main Mideast ally.

Last week, a commander of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards warned that “hated Arab” rivals could face repercussions for their efforts to bring down Mr. Assad.

Although the Gulf Arab states have no direct ties to Israel, any military strike on Iran by the Jewish state could require some degree of coordination, with Washington likely to play an intermediary role. Gulf military forces also could be drawn quickly into a wider conflict or a confrontation over the Strait of Hormuz, the passageway for one-fifth of the world’s oil.

“Amid the standoff between Iran, Israel and the West, there’s another side that is often overlooked,” said Sami al-Faraj, director of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies. “It is the Gulf states. They are the ones caught in the middle.”

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