Understanding the $60 Billion Saudi Arms Deal: It's About Iran

Last week, the Obama administration unveiled a massive new US-Saudi arms deal. In the days since, the proposed package--which still needs congressional approval--has received relatively little attention from the press and foreign policy pundits (one exception, I should note, is my boss at Eurasia Group, Ian Bremmer). That in itself is surprising, as the deal is striking on at least three counts.

The first is its sheer size. At $60 billion, the sale--which would include 84 F-15 fighter planes, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Blackhawk troop-transport helicopters, and 36 Little Bird surveillance copters--would dwarf any previous US arms deal ever. It's particularly striking in a year when US weapons sales worldwide are down 9 percent.

Second is the fact that, so far at least, the Israeli government--which has often and understandably sought to block arms transactions with Arab states in the past (and just this weekend objected to a new Russian sale of cruise missiles to Syria), has yet to utter a peep of protest. In fact, sources suggest the Israelis have actually blessed the Saudi purchase, in part because the weapons systems are less sophisticated than what Israel gets access to. For example, the Israelis are currently slated to soon buy state-of-the-art F-35s, while the planes the Saudis will be getting are updated versions of a 34-year-old model.

But the real story behind the sale--and it's an element I've yet to see discussed very widely--is the way it may reflect a subtle but significant shift in the US posture toward Iran.

It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn the whole deal is actually about Iran. After all, when the US took out Saddam Hussein, it eliminated the Saudis' only other real enemy except al Qaeda (and you can't use fighter planes against jihadis). The Obama administration admitted as much last week; as a senior administration official told the New York Times on Friday, the deal is meant to show the Iranians "that [their] nuclear program is not getting them leverage over their neighbors, that they are not getting an advantage." 

What is surprising, however, is that this deal seems to represent a highly controversial shift in how the administration plans to deal with Iran: from what wonks call (borrowing language from the Cold War) rollback to what's known as containment.

In plain language, the difference is between a policy aimed at stopping Iran from getting nukes (rollback) and one aimed at stopping Iran from using them if, or when, it does (containment). A look at the nature of the weapons Washington is planning to sell Riyadh, which reportedly also include the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system and an upgrade to the Saudis' Patriot batteries, makes it clear that the package is meant to help one of Iran's largest neighbors (and a longtime target of Iranian provocation) cope with nuclear-armed and potentially more belligerent Persian state.

Now, this may be highly rational; it certainly seems that way to me. Despite Washington's success this spring passing a new round of sanctions against Iran and gumming up Tehran's illicit weapons program through sabotage and other means, the mullahs continue to make slow progress toward a bomb. Ultimately, nothing short of a military strike is going to keep them from getting one (if that; there's in fact a huge debate over whether even a US or Israeli strike could set back Iran's march to nuclear precipice by more than a year or so).

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Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm, deputy editor of Newsweek International, and deputy managing editor at Foreign Affairs. More

Jonathan Tepperman is the managing editor of Foreign Affairs. He has spent his career covering foreign policy and international news, both as a writer and an editor. He was previously managing editor and a director at Eurasia Group, a global political risk consulting firm. Before joining Eurasia Group, Tepperman spent three years at Newsweek, where he was the deputy editor of Newsweek International. In that post he helped oversee Newsweek's Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa coverage, top-edited the InternationaList section, ran the annual Davos Ideas issue, and wrote a regular style and luxury column, "The Good Life." Prior to that, he spent eight years at Foreign Affairs magazine, rising to the post of deputy managing editor.

Tepperman has written for a range of publications, including Newsweek and Foreign Affairs, as well as The New York Times (magazine, op-ed page, and book review), The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, The Christian Science Monitor, The New Republic, and others.

He has a BA in English literature from Yale University and law degrees from Oxford and NYU. Tepperman lives in Manhattan.

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