WASHINGTON: American allies in the the Middle East won’t be rushing to flood their arsenals with U.S. military hardware as a result of Iran’s recent aggressiveness in the region, according to defense experts.
Tehran set off a seemingly dangerous game of one-upmanship with Washington and its allies this week when it threatened to take control of the Straits of Hormuz. The key waterway bordering Iranian coastline is a vital transit point for commercial and military vessels looking to enter the Persian Gulf. Iran did back off its claims to the straits this week but warned the Pentagon not to send Navy carriers back to the Persian Gulf. Iran’s assertions over the highly contested waterway coincided with two major arms deals between the U.S, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The Pentagon agreed to sell 150 new and refurbished F-15 fighters to the Saudis and provide the UAE with an advanced missile defense system known as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system. The two deals were announced within days of each other and less than a week after Iran laid claim to the straits. But those sales were not a sign that American allies in the region were rushing to arm themselves against Iran, former Pentagon policy chief and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Eric Edelman, said.
The THAAD and F-15 sales were set in motion long before Iran began flexing its muscles over the straits, said Edelman, who is now a distinguished fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. UAE and Saudi Arabia have always been top buyers of U.S. weaponry going back to his days in the George W. Bush White House, Edelman said. American allies in the Middle East — including Saudi Arabia — bought a combined $4.8 billion dollars worth of U.S. arms in 2010 alone, according to a Congressional Research Service report released last December. The recent “huffing and puffing” coming from Iran, especially after two high-profile U.S. arms deals with regional allies, was just “part of a long-standing story” in the contentious relationship between Washington and Tehran, he said.
Even if American allies in the region felt pressure to counter from an increasingly belligerent Iran, the U.S.-built weapons already in their arsenals would be more than enough to do the job. The F-15s the Royal Saudi air force just bought “are largely unnecessary given that Iran’s air forces are composed of fighters that are roughly 40-50 years old and suffer from horrendous readiness rates,” Jonathan Rue, a defense analyst with the Washington-based defense think tank Institute for the Study of War, added. That overpowering capability, combined with support from the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, is the “kind of security blanket that helps mitigate any sense of urgency [regional allies] might be inclined to feel,” Rue said.
But Tehran continues to do all it can to try and disrupt that sense of security. Aside from its alleged nuclear weapons program, the Iranian navy is in the midst of a large-scale buildup of its fleet. Parts of that buildup — which included anti-ship missiles and submarines — were on display this week during naval wargames conducted in the Persian Gulf. Despite that show of force, many of the same weapons featured during the wargames were the same ones Iran displayed last May, according to Rue. “From a tactical standpoint, Iran hasn’t really done anything new. They’re just talking more.”
While that kind of talk won’t force American allies in the region to arm themselves to the teeth, it will ensure tensions remain high in an already unstable corner of the world, Edelman reiterated. “As the Saudis and Emiratis see [Iran as] a threat . . . they are going to continue to want to defend themselves,” Edelman said. “And the US is going to look to [continue to] provide those capabilities. “