President Bush began two days of talks with Saudi leaders Monday as his administration sent formal notice to Congress of a controversial U.S. sale of “smart bomb” technology to this desert kingdom.
The visit here with Saudi King Abdullah is one of the most diplomatically challenging stops of the president’s six-nation passage across the Middle East. Bush is pressing the Saudis to support both peacemaking efforts between the Israelis and Palestinians and U.S. moves to limit Iran’s influence in the region.
Bush said early today that he would bring up the subject of high oil prices in his meeting with Abdullah.
“Oil prices are very high, which is tough on our economy,” he told a group of Saudi entrepreneurs during a meeting at the U.S. Embassy.
The arms technology is part of a broad program announced in July that eventually could transfer an estimated $20 billion worth of military hardware to six Persian Gulf nations. The effort, along with arms sales to Israel and Egypt, is intended in part to help U.S. allies offset Iran’s military power and political clout in the region.
The most controversial element of the sales is the offer to the Saudis of Joint Direct Attack Munitions, technology that allows standard weapons to be converted into precision-guided bombs. The deal envisions the transfer to Saudi forces of 900 upgrade kits worth about $120 million.
Under U.S. provisions governing such arms sales, Congress has 30 days in which it may disapprove the transaction now that lawmakers have received formal notification.
Israel has expressed concerns about the sale but has not formally protested. Two U.S. lawmakers said they would introduce a resolution of disapproval when Congress returns to session today.
“It’s mind-bogglingly bad policy because the Saudis at every turn have been uncooperative,” said Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.), who is sponsoring the resolution of disapproval with Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.). The technology sale has drawn strong opposition from Congress.
But a spokeswoman for Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Burlingame), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he did not intend to ask his panel to consider a resolution of disapproval. The spokeswoman, Lynne Weil, said Lantos had been thoroughly briefed by administration officials and did not plan to oppose the sale or comment further.
Other nations receiving weapons in the package announced last year are the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Bahrain, all of which Bush has visited on his current Middle East trip, as well as Qatar and Oman.
Anthony Cordesman, a Middle East and arms expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said the threat posed by Iran was the reason for the deals.
The Persian Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia, are key to the United States’ ongoing efforts to isolate Tehran, a Shiite Muslim power often at odds with its neighbors, where Sunni Muslims hold sway.
Many U.S. allies in the gulf were concerned that a U.S. intelligence report last month finding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003 was a signal that the United States was taking a new, conciliatory approach toward Tehran.
As a result, Bush needed during this Mideast tour to affirm his commitment to working with allies in the region to restrain an ascendant Iran, according to analysts. He also needed to reassure Israeli allies that Washington still takes the threat from Iran as seriously as Israelis do.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert repeated to his parliament’s Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee a previous warning that he would not rule out taking military action to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, according to one participant.
“I made it clear that Israel would not be able to accept a nuclear Iran, and there is no option being rejected in advance,” Olmert said, according to the participant, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the comments were made in closed session. “Anything that could lead to the prevention of Iran’s nuclearization is part of the legitimate context of dealing with the issue.”
Though Bush and Abdullah may share deep concerns about Iran, the Saudi monarch may be less interested than the U.S. president in a direct confrontation with Tehran, said Kenneth M. Pollack, a senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
Abdullah, who ascended to the throne Aug. 1, 2005, has proved to be less compliant from a U.S. perspective than his predecessor, the late King Fahd. Pollack said, however, that seeking reconciliation with Iran gives the monarch a choice: He can “play good cop to our bad cop,” or, if reconciliation fails, “he can then help us to confront Tehran.”
Bush also was expected to press Abdullah to at least quietly support renewed talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority that the president hopes will produce the outlines of a peace agreement before he leaves office.
Overall, said Bruce Riedel, also of the Saban Center, Abdullah has had a “difficult and conflicting relationship” with Bush, repeatedly snubbing U.S. invitations for him to visit.
A senior Bush administration official, speaking to reporters under White House ground rules that did not permit his being identified, said the president would seek to “strengthen his personal ties” with the king.
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.