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The folly of alienating Saudi Arabia

REMARKABLY little attention has been paid to a serious development in the vitally important Gulf area; it is one that adversely affects major United States strategic and economic interests. It is the slow but steady alienation of Saudi Arabia over the past several years by the US Congress. Under pressure from the Israeli lobby, Congress has opposed the purchase by the Saudis of military equipment to defend themselves against a very real threat from a much more populous and powerful Iran - an Iran that is bitterly hostile to the US, the Saudis, and the lesser Arab Gulf states as its military attacks against the US Navy and Arabs' Gulf shipping have so clearly demonstrated.

While the eastern shore of the Gulf and the key Strait of Hormuz are Iranian territory, the western shores are occupied by Saudi Arabia and the other smaller Arab Gulf states. These now keep the Gulf open and oil flowing, providing facilities enabling the US and other Western navies to protect their flagged vessels against Iranian attack.

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Saudi Arabia is by far the largest and most important of the Arab Gulf states. It has long had a very special relationship with the US, far closer than with any other Western state. It is an important market for American products and services and is a significant source of dollars from the earnings of the American oil companies that are a part of the Arab American Oil Company, which exploits abundant Saudi oil.

In recent years the Saudis have faced a direct threat from a hostile and revolutionary Iran that accuses them of being a US stooge and calls for the replacement of the present friendly Saudi regime by one based on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's radical fundamentalist model. Last year Iran organized a revolutionary uprising of so-called Iranian ``pilgrims'' in Saudi Arabia during the pilgrimages to Mecca, resulting in some 400 deaths. Only recently Iran again called for demonstrations against the Saudi regime during the coming pilgrimage season.

If Iran were to succeed in installing a hostile fundamentalist regime in Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states, vital US security and economic interests in that critically important region would sustain catastrophic damage. Who can doubt that Iran would then use oil, on which NATO Europe, Japan, and others heavily depend, as an instrument of political persuasion?

Saudi Arabia, faced with Iranian-sponsored subversion and the eventual threat of armed Iranian aggression, has sought to strengthen its defense capabilities by purchasing aircraft, defensive missiles, and other equipment for its AWACS radar aircraft from its closest Western friend, the United States.

And what has happened?

For the past several years the powerful Israeli lobby has pressured members of the US Congress to block the sales of such equipment to the Saudis. Many members, giving highest priority to their own reelection and the financial and vote contributions that the Jewish community could make to it, thus have opposed such sales. In 1985, as a result of such pressure, the US reneged on its commitment to sell F-15 aircraft to the Saudis.

Congress forced the Saudis finally to turn elsewhere. They turned to Britain, for a contract reported to be about $15 billion for military aircraft and equipment, and to the People's Republic of China for medium-range missiles, able to hit Tehran and other Iranian cities, to gain some deterrent capability.

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The final irony is that only a few days ago 58 US senators, many of whom opposed military sales to the Saudis because of Israeli pressures, now complain to Secretary of State George Shultz of Saudi ``secrecy'' in procuring the Chinese missiles; they claim that this not very accurate missile threatens the entire Middle East. The senators called for a reexamination of US sales policy to Saudi Arabia and a hold on the administration's request for a $325 million sale to the Saudis of AWACS ground support equipment.

These senators and other members of the Congress seem to have developed convenient blind spots insofar as Israel's weapons, often paid for or subsidized by the US taxpayer, are concerned. No mention is ever made of Israel's initiative in the arms-to-Iran-for-hostages deal, of that nation's refusal to permit international inspection of its nuclear facilities, or of the fact that to the US government's certain knowledge Israel has possessed atomic devices since the late 1960s and today has an estimated 100 to 150 atomic weapons with the means of delivering them anywhere in the Middle East.

It would be wrong to blame the Israeli lobby for the alienation of Saudi Arabia, for the lobby is simply supporting Israel's perception of its own national interests, which are not always the same as those of the US and in some instances are in directly conflict.

The blame for the steady alienation of a vitally important friend and ally, Saudi Arabia, rests squarely on those members of the Congress who place their own reelection above all else, including the US national interest.

Douglas MacArthur II has held six presidential appointments, including ambassador to Iran and assistant secretary of state for congressional relations.

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