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Choose your weapon: A new arms race in the Middle East

  • Story Highlights
  • Multi-billion dollar arms deals between U.S., Israel and 'friendly' Gulf States
  • Saudi Arabia agrees to buy 72 Eurofighter jets
  • Fears that deals increasing divisions between Sunni and Shiite states
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By Dean Irvine for CNN
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- Saber-rattling in the Middle East has been growing, with Israeli air strikes over Syria at the beginning of the month and France's Foreign Minister talking of war with Iran, but behind the scenes there are fears of a new arms race in the region.


72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets will be winging their way to Saudi Arabia, with more weaponry on the way from the U.S. as military aid.

In a deal announced this week, Saudi Arabia has agreed to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets from Europe's largest defense company, BAE Systems worth almost $9 billion. A boon for the company, especially given that a previous major deal is under investigation for allegations of corruption.

Hailed by the UK ministry of defense as a "new chapter" in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, the contract will be called "Project Salam," meaning "peace." It is also a new chapter that will see much more military hardware entering the region and one that ratchets up current tensions and divisions between Sunni-dominated states, such as Saudi Arabia, and Shiite Iran.

Larger deals between governments have been taking place. In August this year, the U.S. agreed to provide Israel with $30 billion in military aid over the next ten years.

Another agreement that is currently awaiting approval by the U.S. Congress would see a further $20 billion in military aid go to Saudi Arabia and other weapons deals to UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman, plus a further $13 billion to Egypt.

CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson believes it's a move that shores up the U.S. allies in the region in uncertain times. However it does little to ease the simmering international tensions between the west and the focus of its ire, Iran.

In a statement issued after the $20 billion deal to the Gulf states was announced in July, U.S. State Department Spokesman Tom Casey defended the deals as a means for its allies to defend themselves against threats from Iran and Syria.

"The Typhoon jet now has air-to-ground capabilities, which if they were to be used against Iranian nuclear facilities, would be effective, so I think that is the backdrop to that deal," Christopher Pang, Head, Middle East & North Africa Program at the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies, told CNN.

Others see it as part of an attempt to create rival blocs in the region. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini responded to the arms deal to Saudi Arabia a "horror scenario" that was aimed at dividing the region.

CNN's Nic Robertson believes that while arms sales to the region by the UK and U.S. are far from new, their timing and the current situation in the Middle East do increase fears from many quarters and the possibility of military action.

"Despite their own bi-lateral agreements with Iran, there is a mood within Saudi Arabia that it would not mind the U.S. and Israel striking some form of blow against Iran. In the Sunni dominated country, there are fears of a Shia crescent emerging in the region and popular opinion is that Iranian expansion cannot be tolerated," said Robertson.

While the U.S. would like Saudi Arabia to be a buffer to Iran's growing influence, Robertson believes the kingdom's immediate focus is currently on internal threats to its infrastructure and oil refineries from Al-Qaeda.

"The deals also do nothing to deter Iran from its perceived right to nuclear capability, but makes it more determined," said Pang.

"They've come at the first signs of U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which is causing the greatest fears over security. This is a way for the U.S. to say to its regional allies, 'We're not going to leave you high and dry' in the face of growing Iranian aggression," said Pang.

The potential for unease remains, even between those countries that have benefited from the U.S.'s largesse and current round of deals. Fears have been expressed by Israel at the Saudi acquisition of "jdam" satellite guided missiles, bringing the Saudis closer to parity when it comes to the hi-tech weaponry in their arsenal.

At a recent hearing by the U.S. House Foreign Affairs sub-committee on the $20 billion deal to Saudi Arabia, concerns were raised over just how much the sale of missiles to Middle Eastern states guarantees their recipients stability and counters Iran's hard-line policies.

Military aid and weapons deals in tacit exchange for support do not always guarantee stability and influence; weapons sold by the U.S. to Iran before the 1979 revolution and later to Saddam Hussein's regime were used for means other than upholding democracy.

Pang however thinks that the likelihood of any "blowback" -- weapons being used against friendly states - is remote.

"Saudi Arabia, maybe not explicitly, has always indicated that its main threat is not Israel, but Iran's growing power in the region," says Pang.

Beyond the immediate deals is the larger question of just how effective the sale of fighter planes are in countering threats that operate within states. Sectarian violence in Iraq and attacks by Hezbollah in Lebanon show that the balance of power in the region is affected by more than national armies.

"There is a feeling among Hamas is that Iran will be attacked by the U.S. and Israel," says Robertson, and the consequences could be Iran retaliating by using its allies, Hamas and Syria.

"One theory goes that if you give states, like Israel, satellite-guided missiles they have the ability to counter Iran's nuclear threat, so can then spend more time focusing on asymmetric threats like Hezbollah and Hamas. You may or may not find that convincing," said Pang. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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