The Obama administration is quietly pushing Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf to create an advanced missile defense system, and is preparing to ramp up sophisticated weapons sales to Saudi Arabia in an effort to ease regional fears over a potential nuclear deal with Iran.
With Secretary of State John F. Kerry set to visit Saudi Arabia Wednesday and Thursday, officials privately say the administration is weighing whether to offer Riyadh — already a major buyer of American and European weaponry — GBU-28 bunker buster bombs Washington has so far only been willing to provide to Israel.
The discussions are taking place under a cloak of secrecy. The officials who spoke with The Washington Times did so on condition of anonymity only, and the Saudi Embassy declined to comment.
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, would also have to involve an agreement from Israel. But U.S. officials say the prospect that such a system could be sold to those nations is real and will be a centerpiece of closed-door talks between President Obama and Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders at Camp David this month.
The four-year-old GCC includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Mr. Obama scheduled the Camp David session even as he was announcing a breakthrough preliminary nuclear deal with Tehran a month ago, one that deeply unnerved both Israel and the Gulf Arab states.
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Said Simon Henderson, a Persian Gulf analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “The Saudis and the other ‘Gulfies’ are coming with the following mindset: ‘You’re heading toward a deal with Iran, and we’re not terribly happy about it because Iran is a very bad actor. Well, we may be less unhappy if you give us better arms to confront what we regard as the Iranian threat.’”
One U.S. official pushed back against reports that the administration may be open to selling the Gulf nations coveted F-35 fighter jets. The official also claimed the Saudis have made no official requests for bunker buster bombs.
However, analysts familiar with the $90 billion worth of F-15 fighters, thousands of smaller bombs, armored vehicles, Patriot missiles and other equipment Riyadh has purchased from U.S. companies since 2010 say the 5,000-pound GBU-28 is likely to be high on the kingdom’s wish list.
“The Saudis are going to go along with whatever deal ultimately gets reached with Iran, but they may have deliverables that they will ask for, and there is speculation about that right now,” said Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
The secrecy around 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 said.
“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.
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It’s a situation that hangs heavily over the administration’s calculus on whether to offer the Saudis the GBU-28, a weapon Washington first began delivering to Israel in 2009.
The bomb is among the few capable of penetrating underground facilities — including those Iran is widely suspected to have created to shield its nuclear programs — and American diplomats initially sought to keep its transfer to Israel a secret. A classified 2009 State Department cable published by Wikileaks showed both sides agreeing such transfers “should be handled quietly to avoid any allegation that [Washington was] helping Israel prepare for a strike against Iran.”
But the desire to carry out such strikes now seems increasingly shared by Riyadh. Analysts say Saudi leaders share the deep skepticism in the Sunni Arab world that the nuclear pact — which faces a June deadline to complete — will stop Tehran from acquiring a nuclear weapon.
Legally, the Obama administration could pair a GBU-28 sale to Riyadh with something even more powerful to the Israelis. The White House could, for instance, offer Israel the more recently developed GBU-57 — the 30,000-pound state-of-the-art bunker buster version also known as the “Massive Ordnance Penetrator,” or MOP.
But analysts say the wider U.S. national security community remains deeply resistant to sharing the GBU-57 with any nation, even Israel, lest the U.S. lose its own military edge over Iran and the rest of the world.
U.S. officials say the administration is far more keen to convince the GCC nations to work together on a regional anti-ballistic missile system.
The White House has quietly pushed the idea since December 2013, when Mr. Obama suddenly issued a presidential determination declaring the GCC eligible to buy U.S. weapons as a collective entity.
The document made no specific mention of missiles, but its release came just a week after then-Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel made headlines on a visit to Bahrain by asserting Washington’s desire to “integrate” the GCC toward a regional missile defense system.
No deals have yet been done under the policy, but officials said the administration’s goal is to get the GCC working toward the purchase of either a THAAD or Aegis missile defense system.
Both are made by Lockheed Martin and, to be effective, require components spread across several nations or on ships in waters across the region. The catch, according to the official who spoke with The Times, is that such coordination has so far been impossible to achieve among GCC members.
Four of the GCC nations are currently working together to bomb Iran-backed rebels in Yemen. But serious trust issues remain and are likely to stand in the way of any serious collective missile-defense push.
“Let’s say I’m Dubai, and I want missile defense. Am I going to accept a system that depends on an asset in Qatar and the Qatari government telling me when an inbound missile is coming?” said the official. “What we’d like to see is for the entire GCC to take this step collectively.”
The Obama administration is saying little publicly about the May 13-14 summit at Camp David. A White House statement said only that “the gathering will be an opportunity for the leaders to discuss ways to enhance their partnership and deepen security.”
But analysts say weapons deals and Iran will dominate the summit.
“This is a time when the administration is going to be trying to reassure the Saudis that the U.S. is not turning toward Iran and against Riyadh,” said Anthony Cordesman, a longtime Middle East expert at the Center for Strategic International Studies.
A source with ties to one of the GCC nations described the situation 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.