US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice at a press conference following her meeting with selected Arab foreign ministers in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.
The US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, increased pressure on Iran today when she identified it as the biggest strategic challenge to America and the target of a proposed $60bn (£29bn) arms package.
US officials portrayed Iran as a growing spectre that was engaged in aggressive expansion that was destabilising the region.The US formally announced yesterday that the huge arms sales package to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state allies aimed at creating a bulwark against Iran.
Speaking before a Gulf state conference at the Egyptian resort, Sharm-el-Sheikh, Ms Rice, said: "There isn't a doubt that Iran constitutes the single most important single-country strategic challenge to the United States and to the kind of Middle East that we want to see."
She and the defence secretary, Robert Gates, who are an on two-day trip to the region, discussed the details of the proposed arms sales and military aid with the Arab countries directly involved. Iran, which expressed alarm over the sales, accused the US of creating an arms race to help the US defence industry.
Syria, an ally of Iran, echoed this, with its foreign ministry saying today: "He who wants to make peace, does not start out with an arms initiative".Nick Burns, the US undersecretary of state who is to follow Ms Rice and Mr Gates to the region, shrugged aside the Iranian and Syrian criticism: "These countries stand for everything we stand against."
The US wants Iran to cease work on a uranium enrichment programme that Washington claims is aimed at building a nuclear weapons capability. Iran denies the charge. Washington also accuses Iran of supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Hizbullah in Lebanon.
The US arms package involves about $20bn going mainly to the Saudis but also the Gulf states, $13bn to Egypt and $30bn to Israel. It includes warships for the Saudis' eastern fleet that faces the Iranian navy in the Persian Gulf.As well as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, the conference today was attended by Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
A senior US defence official involved in the Sharm-el-Sheikh talks told reporters the sales were intended to send a message to the region: "We have been here 60 years and we're going to be here a lot longer." Both the Saudis and the Gulf states, which are predominantly Sunni, fear that Iran could try to destabilise them by stirring up the Shia parts of their population.
The arms sale is part of a US strategy aimed at putting a squeeze on Iran that involves everything short of war. Both Ms Rice and Mr Gates are the advocates of this approach, in contrast to the vice-president, Dick Cheney, who argues that in the end military strikes will be needed against Iran.
Ms Rice, Mr Gates and Mr Burns hope the pressure can force the Iranians to the negotiating table. The US administration has expressed disappointment with two rounds of US-Iranian talks in Baghdad on the narrow remit of Iraq, during which Tehran's nuclear programme is off the agenda.
The Arabs welcomed the prospect of the proposed arms sales to help contain their traditional enemy, Iran. But they were cool towards pleas by Ms Rice and Mr Gates to provide diplomatic and economic support to the Iraqi government.
"All parties need to really now throw their weight behind this effort for national reconciliation," said Ms Rice. Ms Rice and Mr Gates flew from Sharm-el-Sheikh to Jeddah for talks with King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. The US defence official argued that it was in the interests of the Saudis and other Arabs to support the Iraqi government "and embrace it in the Arab world so that it is an obstacle to Iranian influence and not a bridge".
The Saudis and other Arab states view wth suspicion the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, a Shia. The Saudis have described him as an Iranian agent. The arms sales need to be approved by Congress, where there is concern about providing more arms to the region, particularly Saudi Arabia. Senators and members of the House of Representatives expressed worry what would happen if Saudi was to collapse and the weapons fell into the hands of a hostile regime.
Ms Rice is also seeking support for a planned international conference on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but several Arab states, including Syria, have voiced little enthusiasm. An Arab League meeting in Cairo yesterday offered only qualified support for the proposed conference.
Source: the Guardian