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The United States unveiled plans Friday to sell $10 billion worth of advanced missiles and aircraft to Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia in a bid to counter the threat posed by Iran.
It was highly unusual for the Pentagon to announce an arms deal covering three countries and the move seemed to be designed to send a warning to Iran that Washington's partners in the region were beefing up their military power.
But officials insisted the arms package did not reflect any shift in US policy on Iran.
The elaborate deal would provide Israel with anti-radiation missiles designed to take out enemy air defenses, radar for fighter jets, aerial refueling tankers and Osprey V-22 tilt-rotor transport aircraft, defense officials told reporters.
Israel would be the first foreign country to be allowed to buy the US military's Osprey, which can take off and land like a helicopter but fly with the speed of a plane, officials said.
The deal "not only sustains but augments Israel's qualitative military edge," said a senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Under the package, which is still being finalized, the US government will sell 26 F-16 fighter jets to the United Arab Emirates as well as sophisticated missiles for the warplanes, which officials would not specify.
The UAE part of the arms deal comes to nearly $5 billion, officials said.
Saudi Arabia, which had already agreed to buy 84 F-15 fighters in 2010, would purchase the same advanced missiles provided to the United Arab Emirates, allowing Saudi fighters to strike ground targets at a safe distance.
Pentagon officials unveiled the deal a day before Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's departure on a week-long trip to the region, with stops in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.
Bolstering Israel's air power with crucial mid-air refueling tankers and missiles is sure to fuel speculation that Washington could be helping Israel to prepare for a preemptive strike against Iran.
But officials said it would be months or more for the weapons and aircraft to be delivered. They also insisted the hardware could be used for a variety of missions and was not intended to address a particular country or specific threat.
"This doesn't signal a change in US policy towards Iran," said the defense official.
But the UAE and the Saudi leadership are deeply concerned over Iran's nuclear and missile programs while Israel has said it may be forced to take preemptive military action if it believes Iran is close to having an atomic bomb.
The arms sales followed months of intense "shuttle diplomacy" by the Pentagon among the three countries, officials said, with the Americans seeking to boost the capabilities of Arab allies while maintaining a longstanding US commitment to ensure Israel enjoys military superiority in the region.
"This is one of the most complex and carefully orchestrated arms packages in American history," said the defense official.