Arming its friends and talking peace

15.jpgWITH America determined to thwart Iran’s possibly nuclear-tipped ambitions, and the Islamic Republic set on blocking the superpower’s regional sway, some are calling the contest between Iran and the United States a new cold war. As in the last one, the adversaries have mostly shied from hitting each other directly, preferring propaganda, proxy fighters and subtler pressures. In contrast to the last one, America has so far fared badly. Its burden in Iraq refuses to lighten, and its strategy of pacifying the region by (vainly) encouraging the Arabs to democratise has alienated allies almost as much as its support for Israel. Meanwhile, Iran is enriching uranium in defiance of the UN Security Council and basking in the reflected glory of its clients, Hizbullah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and Shia militias in Iraq.

The beleaguered Bush administration, looking for a comeback strategy, has now reverted to more traditional ways of rallying its friends. What appears to be a charm offensive began with President Bush’s call, in mid-July, for a regional peace meeting to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. Arab leaders had long demanded such an event, both to placate their restless publics and to undercut Iran, which is working hard to exploit the Palestinian cause to bolster its image as a protector of Muslim rights. Whether the meeting, expected late this year, can achieve a real breakthrough in the peace process remains to be seen. But at least the Bush administration is showing signs of engagement.

This week America’s secretaries of state and defence kicked off an unusual joint tour of the region with a still more concrete show of commitment to American allies. Over the coming decade, officials announced, America would be supplying them with some $63 billion worth of arms. The package included a 25% increase in military aid to Israel, raising its value from $2.4 billion a year to $3 billion, and a ten-year pledge to continue bolstering Egypt’s military with an annual $1.3 billion in aid. More controversially, at least in the American Congress, the deal also included a planned $20 billion in weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the five smaller monarchies that face Iran across the Persian Gulf.

The planned arms transfers, say analysts, are intended to signal that America expects to maintain its role as a guarantor of regional stability, even in the event of a withdrawal from Iraq. Yet, with the exception of the sharp rise in aid to Israel, the big numbers do not amount to much that is really new. America has maintained the same level of military aid to Egypt since 1979, when Anwar Sadat signed the Camp David peace accords with Israel. In fact, the new commitment marks the end of an unwritten rule that divided American military aid to the peace partners by a 2:3 ratio in Israel’s favour. Egypt’s share will now shrink to two-fifths of Israel’s, leaving aside what the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, describes as a “detailed and explicit” promise to maintain the qualitative edge in military technology that Israel has traditionally held over Arab neighbours. And in any case, Congress has moved to condition a slice of aid to Egypt this year on improvements in the country’s human-rights record.

As for the Gulf, the announcement of $20 billion in promised arms sales over ten years is plainly intended to scare, or deter, Iran. The sum falls far short of what the Gulf monarchies would likely have spent anyway. From 1990-2000, for instance, Saudi Arabia bought some $40 billion-worth of American military gear. Last year alone, the six Gulf Co-operation Council countries signed defence contracts worth more than $20 billion, half of them with American suppliers.

Even so, and despite the fact that Israeli officials say they do not oppose the sale, objections have been raised in the American Congress. Some legislators accuse Saudi Arabia, in particular, of “tacit approval” for Islamist terrorism. But American qualms about the kingdom go beyond point-scoring local politics. Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s representative to the United Nations, recently hinted that Saudi support for some Sunni political parties in Iraq has weakened the Shia-dominated, American-backed government. American press reports assert that Saudi nationals make up the single largest group of suicide bombers in Iraq.

In fact, America’s relations with its Arab allies have been increasingly strained. In March King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia raised eyebrows by describing America’s occupation of Iraq as illegal, and later refused to meet the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki. Despite American prompting to take a more forceful stance, Gulf leaders have kept their serious worries about Iran’s ambitions mostly quiet. Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, once a frequent visitor, has avoided Washington in recent years. He has also ignored American protests over human-rights abuses. On the day he met with Robert Gates, America’s defence secretary, and Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state, an Egyptian court rejected an appeal to release Ayman Nour, a politician who challenged Mr Mubarak in the 2005 elections, from prison on medical grounds.

One thing that could transform America’s standing in the region would be real progress towards George Bush’s newly re-iterated “vision” of a Palestinian state. Hoping that getting talks started will increase support for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, against the Islamists of Hamas who now run the Gaza Strip, the Bush administration is calling for an international “meeting” in the autumn.

American officials have been avoiding the weightier word “conference” used by their Arab allies, leading observers to suspect that this will end up merely as a high-profile session of the regular confab for the Palestinians’ international donors. But an announcement this week that Saudi Arabia might attend could spur something more serious. The Saudi-brokered coalition between Hamas and Mr Abbas’s Fatah party earlier this year, though short-lived, went against the preference in America and Israel (and sections of Fatah) for squeezing Hamas out of power. If the Saudis are now readier to co-operate with the American game, it may be a sign that those arms sales are doing their work. And it would serve the interests of both countries by helping to spoil Iran’s pose as a defender of the Palestinians.

Diplomacy in slow motion

Mr Olmert has not said that Israel will attend, only that he hopes many other Arab countries do. That could be seen as kicking the ball back in the Arabs’ court. Israel has so far refused to accept the Arab League’s peace initiative, which calls for full normalisation only if Israel withdraws completely from the West Bank and recognises the right Palestinian refugees claim to return to homes now in Israel. But in recent weeks Israeli officials have once again been talking about removing settlements from large parts of the West Bank, the proposal on which Mr Olmert was elected, but which has been a political taboo since last summer’s war in Lebanon.

Things seem to be moving—but glacially. So it is perhaps small wonder that Iran and its allies appear unshaken by America’s latest moves. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, said of the proposed arms transfers that supplying weapons was an odd way to achieve peace. One Tehran daily, Jomhuri Islami, dismissed America’s diplomacy as being as “useless as a chocolate teapot”.

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