Sep 4, 2015 by


    President Obama and King Salman meet in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in January. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

WASHINGTON — In a move meant to reassure a vital Persian Gulf ally about the Iran nuclear deal, the Pentagon is finalizing a $1 billion arms agreement with Saudi Arabia that will provide weapons for the Saudi war effort against the Islamic State and Yemen, senior administration officials said Thursday.

Details of the pact are being worked out ahead of a visit by King Salman of Saudi Arabia to the White House on Friday, the officials said, adding that the deal must be approved by Congress before it is final. The two leaders are also expected to discuss additional military training that the United States can provide for Saudi Arabia as it adopts a more muscular stance in the region.

The weapons deal, although not the largest between the United States and Saudi Arabia, comes at a time when the Obama administration is promising Arab allies that it will back them against what many Arab governments view as a rising Iran. It also comes as the Middle East is descending into proxy wars, sectarian conflicts and battles against terrorist networks.


As King Salman of Saudi Arabia heads to Washington, a $1 billion arms deal aims to assure the Saudis about the Iran nuclear deal. Credit Saudi Press Agency

The result is that countries in the region that had stockpiled American military hardware are now using it and wanting more, a boon for American defense contractors.

Administration officials said that there are no warplanes included in the agreement, and stressed that at the moment the only country in the Middle East that will get F-35 fighter jets, considered the jewel of America’s future arsenal, is Israel. Administration officials said the sale to the Saudis primarily comprised missiles that would fit the F-15 fighter jets Saudi Arabia previously bought from the United States.

But a senior administration official said that “a range of other options meant to bolster Saudi defenses” would also be discussed. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter discussed the munitions sale with King Salman in July when Mr. Carter visited the king at one of his palaces in Jidda, and on Friday Mr. Carter will meet with the Saudi defense minister, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Washington.

The pending weapons sale to the Saudis is already coming under criticism from human rights activists who say the administration is supplying arms to Saudi combat operations in a conflict in Yemen that has taken an enormous toll on civilian lives. Last month Doctors Without Borders said that Saudi-led airstrikes on a residential district in Yemen’s southwestern city of Taiz had killed more than 65 civilians, including 17 people from one family.

“Transferring arms to resupply Saudi military operations in Yemen emboldens the U.S.-supported coalition to prolong its military offensive, rather than engender concern for the growing humanitarian crisis,” Paul O’Brien, vice president for policy and campaigns at Oxfam America, said in an email. “The Saudi-led coalition, with U.S. backing, has pursued a course that has devastated Yemen, preventing humanitarian assistance and other critical support from reaching those who need it most.”

In a sign of just how much the world has changed in recent years, Saudi Arabia’s oil production will barely get a mention during King Salman’s visit.

“I wouldn’t suggest that it was going to be foremost on the agenda,” Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, said in a conference call on Wednesday to discuss the king’s visit.

Under King Salman, Saudi Arabia has become increasingly assertive in the Middle East, intervening in the war in Yemen and stepping up support for rebels in Syria as the king positions his country as defender of the region’s Sunnis. King Salman is widely seen as more vocal than his predecessor in his unhappiness with the United States and, in particular, its approach on Iran. A recent trove of documents from the Saudi Foreign Ministry illustrated a near obsession among the kingdom’s leaders with Iran, which is dominated by Shiites.

Obama administration officials said they understood Saudi Arabia’s concerns about Iran’s behavior in the region, including its support of terrorist groups, and about the economic benefits that Tehran may receive under the nuclear deal. Mr. Obama has offered Saudi Arabia new support to defend against potential missile strikes, maritime threats and cyberattacks from Iran.

But for the United States, issues in Yemen, Iraq and Syria are at least as important as those involving Iran, though there is considerable overlap. One administration official acknowledged that the White House is trying to walk a delicate line between reassuring the kingdom that the Iran nuclear deal does not meant that the United States backs Iran in the region and urging the kingdom to exercise restraint in Yemen.

Mr. Obama and King Salman are also likely to discuss Saudi Arabia’s recent arrest of the man accused of being the mastermind of the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 American airmen.

The suspect, Ahmed al-Mughassil, has been identified in an American indictment as a senior leader of an Iran-backed Saudi militant group. Mr. Mughassil was arrested at the international airport in Beirut, Lebanon, after arriving on a flight from Tehran, according to two American officials, who declined to give an exact date for the arrest. Lebanese authorities, acting on a tip from Saudi intelligence agents — who in turn had received information from the United States — detained Mr. Mughassil and handed him over to the Saudis, said the American officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss confidential intelligence.

The Mabahith, the secretive Saudi security service, has been providing the C.I.A. with transcripts of its interrogations of Mr. Mughassil, but it has not given the Americans direct access to him, according to a third United States official who has been briefed on the matter. Mr. Mughassil has described details of his relationship with Iranian security and intelligence, but has so far denied any role in the Khobar Towers attack, the official said.

Middle East analysts said the arrest and sharing of information illustrated the tight working relationship between American and Saudi spy services and law enforcement agencies.

Bruce Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst who is now at the Brookings Institution, said that the capture “underscores the very close connections between U.S. and Saudi security services” established by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef since he became interior minister in 2012.

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