Sixty billion dollars, 75,000 JOBS, over 250 new aircraft; added up, it’s the largest foreign arms sale in history. Only a state such as Saudi Arabia could afford the massive price tag. But what is the reason for the Saudi purchase? The answer and the reason why Congress will almost certainly approve the deal in its final form, is more elusive than it seems at first glance.

In a region that is still little more than a powder keg waiting for its next spark, the proposed arms sale could easily tip the balance of power in the region, touching off a new regional conflict. While the deal does involve some defense-oriented weapons – such as missile defense systems – the assault-ready F-15 fighters and Apache helicopters are decidedly geared toward making the Saudi military the most powerful offensive force in the region. Indeed, the package is so formidable that the Israelis are sweating; were it not for a separate deal that would sell the Israeli military a more advanced F-35 fighter, Tel Aviv would be in uproar. Why would the Pentagon want such a powerful Arab force in the region?

Like most questions in current Middle Eastern politics, the answer goes back to Iran. Tehran’s unstoppable bid for a nuclear weapon is the prime concern of every player in the region, from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to the United States. Virtually every player with a stake in regional politics wants to keep the Iranians from going nuclear. Unfortunately, the U.S. military is already bogged down with ending the most expensive war in American history and fighting a counterinsurgency with no end in sight. It is simply not possible for the United States to wage an even more costly war – in terms of both lives and money – at this point. The Israelis, too, have their hands tied. Without the promise of direct American support, Tel Aviv will not attack Tehran.

Checking Iran is thus left up to the states with the most to lose: Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and others lining the Persian Gulf. These states would be threatened by Iran’s increased military and cultural influence more than any others. Given the economic damage that could be wrought to the Emirates simply by closing the nearby Strait of Hormuz, the rise of Iran’s theocracy must keep the UAE’s leaders from sleeping at night.

Furthermore, the chance of increased Shiite influence in the region threatens Riyadh’s hold on Mecca and Medina, Islam’s holiest cities. Increased political power in Iran would make the Saudi Sunnis worry about their place at the pinnacle of the Muslim world. The threat from Iran to the Saudis and other Gulf states is real and immediate, and the Pentagon certainly knows that. Strategically speaking, the Saudis and their allies might be ready to pull the trigger on Iran.

This is not to say that there is a Saudi-Iranian war brewing in the Middle East. However, there is a distinct likelihood that, if anyone decides to use hard power to check Iran’s nuclear progress, the Saudis and their allies will have planes in the air long before American or Israeli bombers leave their hangars. The Pentagon is working with the Saudi military to prepare for that contingency.

As both sides’ military strength currently stands, any conflict between Tehran and the Gulf states would likely lead to a stalemate. It would look much like the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Massive casualties would ensue, greater powers would throw their weight on both sides and a fragile region of the globe would be shattered once again. If the Iranians were to test a nuclear weapon, they would earn temporary regional hegemony, sparking either a war or an arms race. If the Saudis were able to check Iran’s rise, however, quite the opposite might be true. A war might be prevented, or if started, it might be on a vastly smaller scale.

While the United States is unwilling to fight Iran, the Saudis and their allies might have no other choice. When that is made clear to Congress, it will be obvious that the Pentagon is in a win-win situation. This arms sale will bolster the security of American interests in the Middle East while creating thousands of jobs in 44 states. The arms sale will be approved, the Iranians will blusteringly test another missile, and in the end, the United States will emerge victorious.

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