WASHINGTON (Mar. 12)
The Reagan Administration will try to prevent Congress from rejecting its proposal to sell $354 million in missiles to Saudi Arabia, by stressing the Saudis need the weapons to defend themselves and other Persian Gulf states from Iran.
The missile package which was sent to Congress Tuesday does “not represent a threat to Israel,” a senior Administration official asserted in briefing reporters Tuesday. “This sale will not threaten Israel’s qualitative military edge nor change the power equation in the Middle East,” he stressed.
The proposed sale includes 1,666 Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, of which 995 are the most advanced type of Sidewinder; 200 Stinger shoulder-fired ground-to-air missile systems plus 600 replacement missiles; and 100 Harpoon air-to-sea missiles. The Saudis now have 2500 Sidewinders, 200 Stinger systems with 200 replacement missiles and 178 Harpoon sea-to-sea missiles.
REASONS FOR ADVANCING THE ARMS PACKAGE
The official said that the Administration had planned to propose this package at the end of the year but had advanced it because of the threat caused by Iranian troops moving to the border of Kuwait. “That not only threatens our interests but deeply troubles our friends in the area,” he said.
The official also pointed to the current unstable situation in South Yemen “exacerbated by Soviet interference” which he said “raises the potential of a renewed threat on Saudi Arabia’s southern border.”
At the same time, the official conceded that deliveries of the missiles would not start until 1989 and run through 1991. However, he stressed, “the fact of American support for Saudi Arabia will act as a deterrent on Iran.”
He added that “acting now will send a clear signal to Iran. It will also reduce the chances that we would have to take emergency action later on our own to protect our own interests.”
U.S. CREDIBILITY AT STAKE
Perhaps the most important reason was noted by the official when he said that the Saudis have been pressing the U.S. to move on the sale. “Our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia and of equal importance, our credibility with the rest of the moderate Arabs, will be advanced by this sale,” he said.
The official would not assess whether the Israel government’s decision not to publicly campaign against the sale means a lessening of Israeli opposition. He noted that the Israel Cabinet said that on principle it was opposed to arms sales to Arab countries that are still at war with Israel.
The official said that this would be the last major sale to the Saudis this year except for the possible beginning of delivery in June of AWACS sold in 1981.
Unless both Houses of Congress reject the sale within 50 days, it will go through. Since the House is expected to certainly reject it, the real battle will be in the Senate, where Sen. Alan Cranston (D. Cal.) has already begun collecting signatures for a resolution of disapproval.
Members of the Senate and House have long argued that the Saudis have not been helpful in the peace process and have funded the Palestine Liberation Organization. This same argument will be used in an effort to block delivery of the AWACS. “Friends don’t always do what we want and we don’t always do what they want,” is the way the official answered the argument.