The Bush administration will ask Congress to expand multibillion-dollar aid and weapons sales packages to friendly nations in the Middle East, partly to counteract Iran, senior officials said Friday.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will announce proposed extensions and enlargements of foreign aid to Israel and Egypt, and a proposed arms sales package to Persian Gulf nations including Saudi Arabia, before she leaves on a trip to those nations Monday, the officials said.
The Israeli and Egyptian proposals would lock in U.S. commitments for the next 10 years. The total for Israel would rise from $2.4 billion to about $3 billion a year, and Egypt would continue to receive $1.3 billion a year.
The Bush administration also wants Congress to give their stamp of approval to an arms sale package for Saudi Arabia. The New York Times reports that the deal would include advanced satellite-guided bombs, upgrades to its fighters and new naval vessels.
Those packages, like existing 10-year packages that expire next year, represent long-standing U.S. commitments to Israel, its principal ally in the region, and Egypt as the first Arab nation to make peace with Israel and a moderate, secular ally and a traditional shepherd of Israeli-Arab peace efforts.
Overall, the aid and arms packages would total $20 billion, according to The Times, which is double what officials first estimated when details first became public this past spring.
Terrorism expert Sajjan Gohel says the Saudi arms sale might not be a good idea. "Weapons would be sold to a regime that is not only despotic but is also trying to undermine democracy in Iraq by assisting Sunni insurgent groups," he told CBS News.
"It shows that the Bush administration isn't looking really at the long-term, but seems to be more concerned about trying to secure oil reserves and deposits in Saudi Arabia than actually protecting their own soldiers in Iraq," Gohel said.
Officials said the money and the proposed weapons sales would strengthen U.S. allies at a time of uncertainty in the Middle East. The United States accuses Iran of developing a nuclear weapon, which Tehran denies, but that development could set off nuclear arms race in one of the world's most volatile regions. At the same time, sectarian violence and wholesale murder in Iraq threaten to spill outside Iraqi borders and inflame a confrontation between Shiite and Sunni Muslims elsewhere in the region.
Iran, whose leader has repeatedly said Israel should be wiped off the map, is viewed by Israel as its main enemy. Shiite Iran also unnerves the closest U.S. allies in the region, all except Iraq led by Sunnis.
Rice plans to announce Monday the proposed sale of $5 billion or more in sophisticated weaponry for Saudi Arabia and other rich Gulf states. The sales have been expected, and some details leaked out this year.
The sale would include advanced weaponry and air systems that would greatly enhance the striking ability of Saudi warplanes.
Israeli leaders have worked to block the deal, which requires congressional approval. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently told the Israelis that moderate Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia would be able to get the weapons elsewhere, including from Russia.
Word of the administration pending arms and aid initiatives comes as a New York Times article published Friday claiming that White House officials are angry about Saudi Arabia giving financial support to Sunni groups, including opponents of Iraq Prime Miniter Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and that the country has been serving as a conduit for Saudis and other foreign fighters to enter Iraq to aid the insurgency.
Asked to comment on the article, State Department spokesperson Scott McCormack said, "We're confident that the Saudi Government is actively engaged on the issue of trying to cut off the flows of illicit funds to illicit groups that are seeking to destabilize Iraq. They are also on the case of doing what they can to stop the flow of young men going from Saudi Arabia into Iraq via Syria, who are bent on blowing themselves up or blowing up others.
"You're never going to completely be able to cut off that flow, despite the best efforts of the government," McCormack said. "There are some historical tensions within the region. The fact is that they need to be overcome if you're going to realize a different kind of Middle East."
The comprehensive regional aid-and-weapons package is meant to compensate Israel for the U.S. sale of weapons to potential enemies, but the Arab arms sales nonetheless are certain to draw opposition from pro-Israeli organizations and human rights organizations.
A senior defense official said Friday the sale to Saudi Arabia and other moderate Gulf states will be on the table when Rice and Gates visit Egypt and Saudi Arabia next week.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because details have not been made public, said there are a number of pending arms sales to countries in the region leaders hope to complete in coming months.
The official said the weapons sale is critical for the Gulf region "to deal with what has been a changing strategic threat from Iran and other forces."
But Gohel told CBS News that the sale to Saudi Arabia is of particular concern because "we're dealing with a country which at the moment is very unstable.
"We talk about not wanting to deal with state-sponsors of terrorism like North Korea, Syria and Iran, but what difference is Saudi Arabia when they are allowing their citizens to go to Iraq, many of whom are killing U.S. soldiers?" he said.
"[Our] biggest problem since 9/11 is that we turn to countries to provide us with the solution, countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whereas in fact they were behind the problem in the first place."