American arms to support Middle-East peace process?

The United States is looking to sell $US 20 BLN worth of arms to its allies in the Persian Gulf. The move to strengthen their support in the region is believed to be aimed at Iran, which the U.S. believes is developing a nuclear weapons programme.

The long-awaited peace-making initiative, recommended by the Iraq Study Group, has been unveiled to the Gulf by U.S. State Secretary Condoleezza Rice:

“The United States is determined to assure our allies that we are going to be reliable in helping them to meet their security needs. We have a lot of interests in common in this region; the fight against terrorism and extremism. It's a positive agenda; it's not aimed at anyone,” the U.S. official stated.

The diplomatic charm offensive turned out to be an offensive and expensive sham. The Middle East challenge for the U.S. is how to prevent an Iraqi domino effect across the region. And the $US 63 BLN high-explosives package offered to the Gulf neighbours is neither diplomatic nor charming. As a binary weapon in the Israeli/Arab stand-off, it could escalate the bilateral arms race and ignite the Gulf beyond all recognition.

No doubt, this is the most impressive promotional campaign yet for the U.S. arms dealers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, '40 U.S. firms accounted for the 63 % of the combined Top 100 arms sales of $ YS 290 BLN in 2005'.

For 60 years, my country – the United States – pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East. And we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course.

Condoleezza Rice,
U.S. Secretary of State 

Business wise, this is a pre-emptive strike against Chinese and Russian competitors. It is also a guerrilla marketing operation to Iranian influence – to offer an antidote and insurance policy against it.

Financially, it may look exorbitant, compared to U.S. aid to Palestine or even Afghanistan, not to mention funding the wars against drugs and poverty. If you look at the estimated $US 1 TLN price tag of the Iraq war, the $US 63 BLN weapons package seems like peanuts. It would be much less expensive and more efficient to channel the money through the Millennium Challenge Corp. to promote a corruption-free market economy.

Policy wise, the initiative is a fallback from promoting democracy to restoring stability and status quo in the Middle East. In Cold War times, it was dubbed 'strategic consensus' against the Soviets.

Strategically, it's a bet on pitching Sunni against Shiites along the divide and rule maxim. However, this approach seems wildly miscalculated and will likely backfire eventually. This stratagem overestimated the fear factor ability to solidify the Arab/Israeli united front against Iran. It also underestimates their mutual distrust aggravated by the Palestinian issue. Saudi/American suspicions, recriminations, and plausible denials regarding the aiding and abetting to self-proclaimed jihadists can jinx this new alliance altogether.

“They have their own problem with al-Qaeda at home. They're much more wary than they were when we both were helping to fund the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union,” believes Gregory Gause, Associated professor of political science at Vermont University.

In politics, especially in the Middle-East, what the leaders say and what their people think sometimes can be opposite. Apply this litmus test to statements emanating from the Gulf capitals, and you might figure out who could be a genuine friend or foe in the fight against 'hashashiyyins'.

The stakes are high, but there's a hunch that the U.S. is betting on a Trojan horse. Iran's interests in Iraq are far more compatible with America's than meets the eye.

“Iranians don't see anything to be gained by Sunni-Shiite conflict in Iraq,” suggests James Dobbins, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Bush administration's paranoia about Iran could derail U.S. peace prospects in the Persian Gulf. As Secretary Gates said, 'that's in the eye of the beholder'.