Thursday, May 18, 2006

US looks to arm Iran's neighbors, general says

Jim Wolf, Reuters:
Iran's neighbors -- including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates -- are talking to the United States about ways to bolster their defenses, the general in charge of U.S. arms sales said on Thursday.

Iran, which has defied United Nations demands to suspend enrichment of uranium that could be used to build bombs, has "awakened some major concerns" among all its neighbors, Air Force Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Kohler said in a Reuters interview.

"We're in discussion with their services and their leaders to see what capabilities are required and how the United States can best fulfill those needs," said Kohler, who heads the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which handles U.S. government-to-government arms sales. READ MORE

Potentially at stake are billions of dollars in U.S.-built missile defense systems, ships to protect off-shore oil rigs and shipping lanes and the technology that would let Iran's neighbors share a digitally networked view of the Gulf.

Kohler's organization oversaw $10.6 billion in U.S. government arms sales last year and is on track to approve about $13 billion this year, he said.

"Our job is not to rack up sales," Kohler added. "Our job is to help people get the capabilities they need."

Asked which Middle East countries were involved in talks sparked by Iran concerns, he said: "Let's just say everybody that is not Iran."

Pressed on whether this included Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, he said, "All of them."

Kohler said he expected competition from France and possibly others for Middle East arms sales.

However, whether the perceived threat has "been Iraq in the past or Iran in the future, I think most of the countries realize that a partnership with the U.S. is critical."

A key U.S. goal, Kohler added, was to enable partners to operate smoothly with U.S. forces.

Iran says its nuclear program is for energy production, not military use.

Weapons sales to Middle East states, particularly those in the Gulf, have slowed since the early 1990s because large orders placed at the time are still being integrated into those countries' militaries, said Richard Grimmett, who tracks such deals for the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.

Big arms purchases take years to complete. Potential beneficiaries of any fresh Middle East military spending wave include the top U.S. contractors -- Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., General Dynamics Corp. and Raytheon Co.