RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – President Bush began two days of talks with Saudi leaders Monday as his administration sent formal notice to Congress of a U.S. sale of “smart bomb” technology to this desert kingdom.
The visit here with Saudi King Abdullah is one of the most diplomatically challenging stops on the president’s six-nation tour of the Middle East. Bush is pressing the Saudis to support both peacemaking efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians, and U.S. moves to limit Iran’s influence in the region.
The weapons technology is part of a broad program announced in July that eventually could transfer an estimated $20 billion worth of military hardware to six Persian Gulf nations. The effort, along with arms sales to Israel and Egypt, is intended in part to help U.S. allies offset Iran’s military power and political clout.
The most controversial element of the sales is the offer to the Saudis of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, technology that allows standard weapons to be converted into precision-guided bombs. The deal envisions the transfer of 900 upgrade kits worth about $120 million to Saudi forces.
Under U.S. provisions governing such arms sales, Congress has 30 days in which it can disapprove the transaction now that lawmakers have received the formal notification.
Israel has expressed concerns about the sale but has not protested formally. Nonetheless, two U.S. lawmakers said they would introduce a resolution of disapproval when Congress returns to session today. “It’s mind-bogglingly bad policy because the Saudis at every turn have been uncooperative,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., who is sponsoring the resolution of disapproval with Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla. The sale of smart bomb technology has drawn the greatest opposition from Congress.
Other nations receiving weapons in the broad package announced last year are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain – all of which Bush has visited on his eight-day trip – as well as Qatar and Oman.
The Persian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, are key to the United States’ ongoing efforts to isolate Iran, a Shiite Muslim power often at odds with its neighbors, where Sunni Muslims hold sway.
Many U.S. allies in the gulf were concerned that a U.S. intelligence report last month finding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 was a signal that the United States was taking a new conciliatory approach toward Tehran.
As a result, during his tour Bush needed to affirm his commitment to working with allies in the region to restrain an ascendant Iran, according to analysts. He also needed to reassure Israeli allies that the U.S. still takes the threat from Iran as seriously as Israelis do.