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Fear of Iran creates strange bedfellows

Mideast nations overlook differences to unite against the threat of Iran

Israel's President Shimon Peres, center, joins hands with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, right, and Jordan's Foreign Minister Abdul-Ilah Khatib, left, during their historic visit to Israel.
Kevin Frayer / AP
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Lt. Col. Rick Francona
Military analyst

The Bush administration proposes to sell $30 billion worth of arms to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other "moderate"Arab countries. Surprisingly, the only real objections are coming from members of the U.S. Congress rather than from who you might expect – the Israelis. Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert said, “We understand the need of the United States to support the Arab moderate states and there is a need for a united front between the U.S. and us regarding Iran."

Why aren't the Israelis up in arms, so to speak?

Almost every time the United States has proposed selling high-tech weaponry to Arab countries in the past, the Israelis have objected and mobilized their supporters (“the lobby”) to derail the deal or at least mitigate the effect. For example, when the United States sold F-15 fighter jets to Saudi Arabia in the 1980's, Israel insisted that the avionics package included in the deal be of lesser capability than that of Israeli air force F-15's and was not to include the conformal fuel tanks (known as “fast packs”) that would extend the range of the Saudi fighters to pose a threat to the Jewish state. Similar, although unsuccessful, efforts were mounted to prevent the sale of AWACS aircraft to the Kingdom.

There is a lot of behind-the-scenes political maneuvering going on in the region -- nothing new. The Israelis have determined that their primary threat, or as they say, the "existential threat," is Iran. Although they are technically still in a state of war with some of the Arab countries, they have made peace with two key players – Egypt and Jordan. Syria, an ally of Iran, remains the critical holdout.

'No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria'
There is an old Middle East adage: "No war without Egypt, no peace without Syria."  Israel recently failed to strike a deal with Damascus that would end Iran's access to Syria's airports and thus prevent Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps from providing money, weapons and training to Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other terrorist groups in the Levant. After Syrian president Bashar al-Assad stated that he would be willing to have direct talks with Israel, it only took Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad two days to get on a plane to Damascus and make sure Syria remained in Tehran's sphere of influence. He also brought $1 billion for the cash-strapped Syrian regime to buy weapons from Iran.

If the Israelis cannot entice the Syrians away from their primary sponsor in return for a commitment to return the occupied Golan Heights, the next step is to not stand in the way of American efforts to bolster the moderate Arabs states as a counterbalance to growing Iranian power and influence. If Iran is truly the existential threat to Israel, anything that mitigates Iranian capabilities is a good thing.

The foreign ministers of Egypt and Jordan recently visited Jerusalem to talk to the Israelis about regional security. The initial announcement about the visit touted it as the first overture by the Arab League to Israel. Arab League sponsorship of the meeting was later withdrawn in the face of opposition from some member states, but in essence it was in fact an overture on behalf of the League. The visit was driven by the realization on the part of the mainstream Arabs that there is one common concern they share with the Israelis – the ascendancy of Iran as a major power broker in the region. There is another Middle East adage (there are plenty of them), “The enemy of my enemy is my friend." Fear of Iran creates strange bedfellows.

Let's not overlook the fact that part of the arms deal includes a 25 percent increase in the amount of American military aid for Israel, estimated to be at about $30 billion over the next ten years. Although there is substantial support to Arab states, Israel gains as well.

Something to keep in the back of your mind as this all plays out: none of the Arab states that are involved in this deal, in fact, virtually none of the Arab states with the exception of Syria, want to see an Iran with nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them. It does not appear that there is an international diplomatic solution to this problem, nor are the Israelis sure that anyone else (like the United States) is willing to act militarily against the Iranian nuclear research facilities. At some point, the leadership in Tel Aviv may decide that they have to attempt an attack. It's a long way from Israel to Iran, virtually all of if through Arab airspace.

Perhaps the Arabs are going to look the other way as the Israeli jets pass through? Sounds far-fetched, right? So does an Arab League delegation meeting with the Israelis. So does almost no Israeli objection to the sale of advanced weapons to Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries.

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