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Last Updated: Wednesday, 1 August 2007, 10:57 GMT 11:57 UK
US launches broad strategy in Middle East
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates
Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal

The United States has embarked on a diplomatic strategy in the Middle East in which it hopes to rally support for Iraq, arm its allies, isolate Iran and launch a new conference for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.

The strategy is being launched in visits to the region by the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Defence Secretary Robert Gates.

The aim is to try to put some long-term cohesion into the various strands of US policy in the region. These have faced difficulties recently because of the war in Iraq, the refusal of Iran to suspend uranium enrichment and the failure to make any progress in the Palestinian/Israeli peace process.

The strands are detailed below.

ISRAELI/PALESTINIAN TALKS

The US is proposing a regional conference sometime in the autumn, possibly in October or November, and maybe in the US itself.

The aim is to capitalise on whatever momentum has been created by a peace plan put forward by Saudi Arabia and approved by other Arab countries. This plan has been given a shove following the upheavals caused by the Hamas takeover in Gaza and the effort to support the government of Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank.

In the Middle East diplomats often make conferences as a substitute for making peace.
The Saudis have indicated that they will attend and, since Israel intends to be there, this could be a step forward, as the Saudis do not recognise the State of Israel.

The problem, as so often in the Middle East, is that diplomats often make conferences as a substitute for making peace.

The Saudi plan calls for Israel to withdraw to the lines of 1967 and to reach a "just" solution of the Palestinian refugee issue, in exchange for full recognition by Arab states and peace treaties.

Israel does not trust such a bargain and is worried about the "just solution" for the refugees. It would be based, according to the plan, on UN General Assembly resolution 194, from 1948, which said that refugees should go home or could choose compensation.

ARMING ALLIES

This is a major new move and subject to approval by the US Congress. Israel and Egypt, which are reaching the end of a 10-year cycle of military aid, will be strongly supported.

Israel is to get an increase from $2.4 billion per year to $3 billion per year, totalling $30 billion over the next 10 years. The increase is partly to enable Israel to keep the qualitative edge in weapons that the US is committed to providing. Egypt will have its $1.3 billion per year aid continued for another 10 years for a total of $13 billiion.

Arms sales will be made to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. These could amount to deals worth $30 billion and will include the latest smart weapons for the Saudis as well as ships for the Saudi navy.

The idea is to reassure US allies that the US is with them. Mr Gates stated that the US, having been in the Gulf for some 60 years had "every intention of being here for a lot longer".

ISOLATING IRAN

The arming of Arab allies is linked to the growth of what the US and some of its Arab allies see as the threat of Iran. In the case of Israel, Iran is seen as an even more immediate threat and Syria is also seen as a potential one.

Condoleezza Rice has described Iran as "the single most important, single-country challenge... to US interests in the Middle East..."

One element of the thinking behind the arms sales is that if Arab countries are reassured, then they might not press for their own nuclear weapons in the event that Iran one day develops them, although Iran says it has no intention of doing so.

SUPPORTING IRAQ

The US is beginning the process of trying to shape a Middle East in which Iraq finds its own place, based on an assumption, yet to be realised, that Iraq can be stabilised.

Washington has been worried that the Saudis in particular have not been supporting the Shia-led Iraqi government and wants tighter border controls by both Saudi Arabia and Syria to stop infiltration by foreign fighters.

But, wider than that, the US is seeking to establish Sunni Arab support for Iraq in the hope that this would help prevent a future Iraqi government from being too much under the influence of Iran.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


SEE ALSO
Saudis back US plans in Mid-East
01 Aug 07 |  Middle East
US envoy accuses Saudis on Iraq
30 Jul 07 |  Middle East
Rice seeks Mid-East peace boost
01 Aug 07 |  Middle East
US 'plans huge Saudi arms deal'
28 Jul 07 |  Americas



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