Rice and Gates Push Anti-Iran Agenda
Bush administration policy in the Middle East is looking increasingly like a Cold War-style exercise in containing Iranian power, judging by the rare dual visit to the region this week by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
The week kicked off with Washington's announcement of a major program of arms sales to America's friends and allies in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Mideast. Likely to include sophisticated air-to-air missiles, precision-guided munitions, and warships, the future sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf states close to Iran will undoubtedly tally into the billions of dollars, though officials won't estimate their scope as yet. The other recipient states will be Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, and Oman. Iran contends the future sales are "creating fear" in the region.
The administration this week also announced an expansion of U.S. military aid to Israel ($30 billion over 10 years) and to Egypt ($13 billion over the same period).
In meetings in Sharm al-Sheikh, Egypt, and Jidda, Saudi Arabia, Rice and Gates sought to portray the future sales as a reaffirmation of traditional U.S. backing for moderate Arab states—not a shift in policy. Gates has suggested that an oil-rich Iran may look at U.S. troubles in Iraq and overestimate American weakness. This week, he touted American "staying power" in the Mideast.
Mounting U.S. concerns over Iranian conduct loomed over the pair's meetings. Said Rice, "Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."
The issues in play are led by Iran's drive to produce nuclear fuel on an industrial scale. Those efforts have been gaining ground and are a prelude to the Islamic republic's mastering the techniques of enriching uranium for a nuclear arsenal, say U.S. and western officials. But Iran says its atomic programs are only for generating energy and for research. U.S. officials also charge Iran with supplying and training some anti-U.S. Shiite militias in Iraq and promoting terrorism through its support for Lebanon-based Hezbollah and for the Palestinian Hamas movement in Gaza and the West Bank.
To counter the Iranian actions, U.S. forces in Iraq have been targeting alleged Iranian-run supply networks and are holding a handful of Iranian officials said to be implicated. It also moved a second aircraft carrier battle group into the Persian Gulf. Elsewhere, Washington is proceeding with plans to rearm Lebanon's Army and the security forces loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas—actions aimed at stemming Iran's growing clout and bolstering moderates.
Iran, for its part, has accused the Bush administration of running covert operations inside Iran, and in recent months, it has detained at least four Iranian-Americans who it alleges have been involved with a campaign to overturn Iran's government. Leading Iranian clerics appear to fear a "Velvet Revolution" scenario in which western-backed political foes lead a peaceful movement to upend their system, such as what happened in latter Cold War-era Czechoslovakia.