Defenses against Iran get big boost
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- The Obama administration is quietly working with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf allies to speed up arms sales and rapidly upgrade defenses for oil terminals and other key infrastructure in a bid to thwart potential military attacks by Iran, according to former and current U.S. and Middle Eastern government officials.
The initiatives, including a U.S.-backed plan to triple the size of a 10,000-man protection force in Saudi Arabia, are part of a broader push that includes unprecedented coordination of air defenses and expanded joint exercises between the U.S. and Arab militaries, the officials said. All appear to be aimed at increasing pressure on Tehran.
The efforts build on commitments by the George W. Bush administration to sell warplanes and anti-missile systems to friendly Arab states to counter Iran's growing conventional arsenal. The United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia are leading a region-wide military buildup that has resulted in more than $25 billion in U.S. arms purchases in the past two years alone.
Middle Eastern military and intelligence officials said Gulf states are embracing the expansion as Iran reacts increasingly defiantly to international censure over its nuclear program. Gulf states fear retaliatory strikes by Iran or allied groups such as Hezbollah in the event of a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear facilities by the United States or Israel.
For the Obama administration, the cooperation represents tangible progress against Iran at a time when the White House is struggling to build international support for stronger diplomatic measures, including tough new economic sanctions, a senior official said in an interview.
"We're developing a truly regional defensive capability, with missile systems, air defense and a hardening of up critical infrastructure," said the official, who is involved in strategic planning with Gulf states and who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "All of these have progressed significantly over the past year."
U.S. support for the buildup has been kept low-key to avoid fueling concerns in Israel and elsewhere about an accelerating conventional-arms race in the region. Iran, which has made steady advances in the development of medium-range missiles, is seeking to acquire modern air-defense systems from Russia while expanding its navy with new submarines and ships.
Gulf officials say their defensive improvements would be undertaken regardless of U.S. support, but some said they were encouraged by the supportive signals from the Obama administration, which regional leaders initially feared would be more accommodating of Iran than the Bush White House.