Babylon & Beyond

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MIDDLE EAST: Bahrain, UAE seek to beef up missile capabilities as Iran tensions rise

November 15, 2010 |  7:00 am

ATACMS Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates are in the market for some fancy new war toys, and the United States is more than willing to beef up the militaries of its Arab allies in the Persian Gulf as Washington weighs the possibility of a showdown with Iran.

The Defense Security Cooperation Agency, which operates under the Pentagon, last week announced that the two Arab gulf states had requested long-range missiles to help counter "major regional threats."

The proposed deal comes on the heels of a recent $60-billion U.S. arms sale to neighboring Saudi Arabia.

"Saudi Arabia and the UAE have already made very large purchases of what is typically considered a classic defensive system," Kenneth Wise, an expert with the Dubai-based B'huth research center, told Babylon & Beyond. "But I always say you can kill someone with a shield."

The relationship between most gulf Arab states and Iran is complicated. While the Arab powers maintain warm relations on an official, diplomatic level and some even import oil and natural gas from Iran, tensions have flared over Tehran's nuclear program and its support for militant groups in the region such as Hezbollah in Lebanon.

According to the press release issued by the Defense Department, the UAE has requested 100 Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) along with training, support and practice missiles for a total package worth about $140 million. Bahrain has requested 30 ATACMS T2K unitary missiles plus technical support in a package valued at approximately $70 million.

The missiles can reach targets up to 186 miles away, putting coastal Iranian military and nuclear installments well within range.

The agency's announcements concluded that the proposed sales would "contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the United States," but without altering "the basic military balance in the region" because the U.S. has agreed to maintain Israel's technical edge on its Arab neighbors.

"This is part of the current U.S. administration's strategy of sending a message [to Iran]," Wise said. "These new weapons systems are interoperable with U.S. command systems ... but they could also be preparing the region for doing more of its own work if the U.S. reduces its own presence."

For now, however, the likelihood of a war between the gulf Arab states and Iran appears slim. Some critics have accused the Arabs of overplaying the Iranian threat in order to get their hands on military hardware that would otherwise be off limits to them.

Others point to the vulnerability of American forces in Iraq and Arab reticence to be dragged into a regional conflict that has more to do with Israeli security than their own.

"This is posturing as far as I'm concerned," said Wise.

-- Meris Lutz in Beirut

Photo: The long-range missiles requested by Bahrain and the UAE have a range of up to 186 miles away. Credit: Lockheed Martin