July 28, 2007 — -- The United States and its Middle East allies are expected to raise the ante this week in an intensifying confrontation with Iran.
As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates make a round of Middle East visits this week, U.S. officials are scheduled to meet on Tuesday with Iranian leaders in Baghdad and with Arab allies in Egypt.
At about the same time, the Bush administration is expected to announce a controversial $20 billion arms sale over the next 10 years to Saudi Arabia and five other American allies in the Persian Gulf -- Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
A senior defense official told ABC News that the Saudi government unsuccessfully seeks an arms deal nearly every year. This year, the Bush administration is supporting the sale to counter what it sees as a rising military threat from Iran.
"The Iranians have been acting for the last six months like nobody can stop them," Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in an interview. "Now, the United States and its friends in the Middle East are showing Iran that, in fact they've got lots of resources, which, if need be, they can use to check the Iranian ambitions."
Critics argue that the deal would accelerate a regional arms race in the Middle East -- threatening a precarious three-way balance between Israel, Sunni Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia, and Shiite nations such as Iraq and Iraq.
But administration officials say it is Iran that has sped up the arms race with its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
The deal has been in the works for months. It initially faced objections by Israel, particularly over the first-ever proposed sale of precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions, or JDAMs, to Saudi Arabia.
"There is a worry that a precision strike weapon in Saudi Hands could, in theory, be used against Israel, either by the Saudi Air Force itself or by another Arab state the Saudis might supply that weapon with," said Michael O'Hanlon, an ABC News consultant and a military analyst at the Brookings Institution.
To counter any threat from the Saudis, the United States would deliver an even larger arms package to Israel, worth $30 billion. That would maintain an American policy of giving Israel a military advantage over its Arab neighbors.
Rep. Anthony Weiner, D-N.Y., and Rep. Robert Wexler, D-Fla., said they will introduce legislation to block the deal in Congress. They said Saudi Arabia has aided Sunni insurgents in Iraq and has done little to stop Sunni extremists from crossing over into Iraq to do battle against American troops.
"Saudi Arabia has not been a true ally in furthering the United States interests in the Middle East," Weiner said. "Just this week, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the top American military spokesman in Iraq, detailed an account of a Saudi Arabian smuggled into Iraq to be a suicide bomber. American officials in Iraq say the majority of suicide bombers in Iraq are from Saudi Arabia and that about 40 percent of all foreign fighters are Saudi. 70 percent of the most-wanted international terrorists are Saudi Arabians."
Administration officials said they have found little evidence of Saudi complicity in Iraq.