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Oil on the fire

Ben KnightApril 23, 2013

The United States' promised $10-billion arms deal with Israel and two Arab allies sends out a clear signal and further increases the pressure on Iran, but where is all this tension leading?

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel (R) shakes hands with dignitaries as he arrives in Tel Aviv, Israel on April 21, 2013. Asked if a multi-billion dollar arms package with Israel was designed to convey a message that a military strike remains an option, Hagel said before landing in Tel Aviv: "I don't think there's any question that's another very clear signal to Iran." AFP PHOTO/POOL/JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
US Verteidigungsminister Chuck Hagel in IsraelImage: JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images

As "clear signals" go, this one could hardly be clearer. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced over the weekend that the US was preparing a $10-billion (7.7-billion-euro) arms deal with Israel and two key Arab allies - Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The deal will supply Israel with missiles for its fighter aircraft, plus KC-135 refueling planes that could be used in a long-range strike, as well as five or six V-22 Osprey transport planes, which would also be very useful in any potential military action against another country - say, for example, Iran.

"This is one of the most complex and carefully orchestrated arms sale packages in American history," one anonymous US defense official is quoted as saying. "That's not just because of the kinds of equipment that we're providing to Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Emirates. It's also a reflection of intensive defense shuttle diplomacy."

A television news crew from Albuquerque takes a ride on a CV-22 Osprey Aug. 7 and finds themselves in the midst of aerial scenery that is breathtaking, as is the angle of flight during part of the ride. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Markus Maier) Date 7 August 2007 Source http://www.af.mil/shared/media/photodb/photos/070809-f-0001m-901.jpg http://www.af.mil/photos/ Author U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Markus Maier http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:CV-22_Osprey_in_flight.jpg
It is the first time that the US has sold Ospreys abroadImage: U.S. Air Force

Speaking to reporters on his flight from Washington as he began a week-long trip to Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Egypt, Hagel called the proposed sale a "very clear signal" to Iran. "The bottom line is, Iran is a threat - a real threat," he said, before adding that there was "no daylight at all" between Israel and the US on the central goal of preventing a nuclear-armed Iran, a country he described as a toxic combination of nuclear ambition and support for terrorism.

Business as usual

This rhetoric and the deal that came with it both served one purpose, according to Yiftah Shapir, a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) in Tel Aviv: "It was a political declaration saying that everything remains as it was in the relationship between Israel and the United States."

The pronouncements - and indeed the deal itself - were seen as an attempt to bury Hagel's image as soft on Iran and weak in his support of Israel. Prior to his Senate confirmation hearing in February, Hagel came under intense fire from Republican critics for some of his past statements on the Jewish state.

"There were a lot of fears in Israel about Hagel the person," said Shapir told DW. "And it was necessary to declare that the US would continue to supply weapons to Israel, and is standing behind Israel."

Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad raises his clenched fist in salutation during the funeral of Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez in Caracas, on March 8, 2013. Latin American leaders and US foes paid tribute to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez on Friday as he lay in state in a flag-draped coffin during a lavish state funeral before the nation swears-in an interim president. AFP PHOTO/JUAN BARRETO (Photo credit should read JUAN BARRETO/AFP/Getty Images)
Iran will almost certainly see the new arms deal as a threatImage: Getty Images/AFP

Yossi Mekelberg, associate fellow at the Chatham House think tank and director of international relations at Regent's College, London, points out that the military supplies are very long term. "This is not going to happen immediately," he told DW. "This supply of weapons does not happen overnight. It's not only the agreement, the supply, you need to train pilots, you need to organize logistics and train technicians."

Where is this military pressure leading?

While Hagel needed a big gesture for his first major tour of the Middle East, wasn't there a risk that the announcement of this major arms deal would further heighten tensions in the region, particulary with Iran? "Iran naturally looks at the rest of the region as hostile, and with some good reason," said Mekelberg.

"Obviously Iran will see this as a threat, but that is nothing new," added Shapir. "The relations between Israel and Iran are known, and the US is standing behind Israel openly - only with some caution, because they are also telling Israel, 'Don't attack Iran without calling us.' It's very much business as usual."

Some might question whether all this increased military pressure on Iran is necessary, given that Iran's negotiating position on its nuclear program has changed in the past few years, and that sanctions are clearly damaging the country's economy.

"All the evidence is that the sanctions bite, partly because the Iranian economy is being completely mismanaged, but that doesn't mean anything will change," said Mekelberg. "But in Cuba there have been 50-plus years of sanctions and a Castro is still in power."

A file photo dated 20 August 2010 shows a general view of the nuclear power plant in Bushehr, south Iran, a day before the official opening ceremony. Iran's first nuclear reactor was connected to the national electricity network on 03 September 2011, Iran's Atomic Energy Organization said in a statement carried by ISNA news agency. The whole plant is to become fully operational on 12 September and to produce 1000 megwatts. EPA/ABEDIN TAHERKENAREH +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
It seems unlikely that Iran's nuclear program can be stopped in the long termImage: picture alliance/dpa

Living with a nuclear Iran

On the other hand, Mekelberg is certain that a military strike against Iran would not help either. "It would damage their nuclear program, but the implication of this might be disastrous," he said. "In terms of the retaliation from Iran, but also because whoever does that will do it without an international mandate from the United Nations, and it may unite the more extreme sections within the Islamic world."

The debate in Israel about Iran has been going on for years between those urging military action and others who are relying on sanctions do to their work, says Shapir. "Some people never believed that sanctions would work, and they haven't changed their mind, but everyone agrees that right now the US is not ripe for military action against Iran. We don't expect that, and so people don't think the time is right for an independent Israeli action either. Also there is an awareness in Israel that an attack would not stop the Iranian nuclear program."

According to Mekelberg, the international community may have to get used to the idea of a nuclear-armed Iran. "I'm not in favor of that, but what we've learned from history is that countries that have nuclear weapons have learned to behave more responsibly, because the alternative is disastrous for them."