US-Saudi arms deal

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LISA MULLINS: Iran's growing military capability is posing a serious challenge to Washington. The United States charges that Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing atomic weapons. That's an accusation Tehran denies. And so the Obama Administration has been quietly helping Arab states boost their defenses. Now, the White House intends to help one Arab state in particular and the deal would be anything but quiet. The plan is to sell up to 60 billion dollars worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Adam Entous is the National Security Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He says the package contains serious numbers of war-planes and helicopters.

ADAM ENTOUS: We're talking about 84 F-15 fighters, Apache helicopters, Blackhawks and Boeing helicopters called Little Birds.

MULLINS: But Adam, why do the Saudis want these weapons to begin with?

ENTOUS: They see Iran's growing ballistic missile threat as particularly ominous. The US, Saudi Arabia, the other Gulf allies, and Israel included, all see Iran as a growing threat and Saudi Arabia is not the only one who's expanding their military. You also have UAE doing the same thing and the US is helping with that. The 60 billions dollars in many ways is probably just the first installment. The American's are also talking about a naval package that would expand Saudi Arabia's naval forces by up to another 30 billion dollars. And that's something that's still being discussed. And another package in the works is also to bolster Saudi Arabia's missile defense systems such as selling them Thaad and Patriot upgrades which would help them deal with any incoming rockets from Iran.

MULLINS: Thaad being T-H-A-A-D, the Terminal High Altitude Defense, and that's something that would clearly go up into the atmosphere versus, say, Patriot missiles which are lower to the ground.

ENTOUS: That's right. It provides sort of a layered missile defense. The administration has been encouraging the Saudis to upgrade the systems. So this is something that's a high priority for the administration, but the initial package with what the administration will go to Congress to, later this week or early next week, will be the initial 60 billion dollars of which the Saudis, at least initially, are expected to only sign contracts for about 30 billion dollars worth.

MULLINS: Does the fact that Saudi Arabia has such a woeful human rights record, as has been pointed out on many occasions, influenced deals like that at all?

ENTOUS: In the past in definitely has, but a bigger factor has been Israel's position and the power of pro-Israel lawmakers in Congress. What you're going to see in this case is, and what's to watch, is to see whether the pro-Israel lawmakers are going to try to slow down the deal or put caveats on it or seek assurances that [INDISCERNIBLE] before giving a green light to it.

MULLINS: Because they don't want to see arm sales increased to Saudi Arabia at all.

ENTOUS: Not so much that. Certainly that might be part of it for some of them, but the real concern for these lawmakers would be what effect this would have on Israel's military edge in the region. They want to make sure that Israel's in a position to effectively take on any comer down the road and what you're doing by beefing up Saudi capabilities is you are eroding, or potentially eroding, Israel's edge. And this is something that the United States is committed to maintaining.

MULLINS: So you said keep on this. Could pro-Israeli lawmakers or pro-Israeli lobbyists influence a deal this massive?

ENTOUS: They certainly can have an influence. I mean the fact that this is going to create lots of jobs in the US may help blunt those concerns in some ways for some lawmakers. But they will certainly be vocal in raising concerns and seek assurances from the administration that the sales to the Saudis aren't going to erode Israel's capabilities and won't compromise Israel's security.

MULLINS: The defense issues are one thing, the economic issues are another. For those people who are wondering when these thousands of jobs may materialize at places such as Boeing and General Electric and United Technologies, when might that be in the deal goes through?

ENTOUS: It's going to take some time. I mean already Blackhawk's which are made by Sikorsky are � production levels are very high, so it's unclear that there would be a large increase in employment connected to that purchase. But when it comes to the F-15s, this is something where the Saudis are expected to get the first planes in around 2015, so production would have to start obviously within the next few years in order to meet that goal.

MULLINS: Thank you very much. Adam Entous, National Security Correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. Thanks again, Adam.

ENTOUS: Thank you.