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).

But shifting from rollback to containment, even if it's the more realistic policy and done quietly, is still a dangerous move for the Obama administration, for several reasons. First, making the switch by funneling unprecedented quantities of firepower to the Saudis could fall flat, or even backfire. The kingdom has already been the largest purchaser of US arms for some time now, and despite that fact, has proved utterly incapable of defending itself and its massive oil fields. Second, by upping the quantity of weapons dramatically, the administration risks igniting a regional arms race. (It's worth noting that in 2008, the tiny United Arab Emirates actually spent even more on armaments than the Saudis did.). Apart from its inherent dangers, such a escalatory cycle would pose a major PR problem for a White House that has made global arms reduction a major part of its policy agenda.

The third issue is by far the most delicate. Since taking office, skeptical hawks in both Washington and Jerusalem have watched the Obama administration like... well, hawks for signs that it may not be prepared to stand behind its avowed commitment to keep all "options on the table" when it comes to Iran--code words for preserving the option to use a military strike if all other means of halting Iran's nuclear program fail. Maintaining the credibility of that threat is critical to the administration at the moment, both because it keeps the Israelis from taking matters into their own hands and because it gives Iran extra motivation to consider negotiations.

To persuade the doubters of its mettle, the administration has resorted to a variety of measures in recent years, including engaging in contingency planning, holding frequent briefings with the Israelis, and trotting out Rahm Emmanuel to insist to Jeffrey Goldberg that it had not ruled out "counterproliferation by force." In recent months, these gestures seemed to be succeeding. But if failsafe moves like this Saudi sale start persuading the skeptics that Obama has lost his nerve, it could unleash a whole set of nasty consequences for the administration. These include strident attacks from Republicans going into the midterm elections and the presidential campaigning that will start soon after. They could also include a range of destabilizing Israeli moves, from withdrawing from the peace process--which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu probably only engaged in to secure US cooperation on Iran--to reconsidering a military strike of its own.

None of this means the Saudi deal is a mistake. But it does mean the stakes are a lot higher than most people seems to recognize.

UPDATE: This morning, the FT reported that the UAE has just signed military supply contracts for $35-40 billion and that by 2014, Oman is expected to shell out $12 billion and Kuwait some $7 billion for arms, in what the FT calls "one of the largest re-armament exercises in peacetime history." Seems the regional buying bonanza has already begun.