SHANNON, Ireland — Iran is the "single most important" strategic challenge in the Middle East for the United States and its allies, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Monday, as she flew to the region with a plan for billions of dollars in arms sales and military aid for Israel and Arab nations.
Rice, who will be joined by Defense Secretary Robert Gates at high-level meetings in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, defended the proposed arms transfers as vital to reassuring America's friends in the face of what she called Iran's "destabilizing activities."
"We are ...very determined to maintain the ability of our allies and friends to rely on the United States to help them with their security concerns," she told reporters.
The security assistance package, which Rice announced earlier Monday, includes $30 billion in military aid to Israel over 10 years, $13 billion for Egypt in the same time frame and more than $20 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states.
Rice emphasized that the Bush administration intends to counter the challenge from Iran with diplomacy, not military force.
The joint trip by Rice and Gates comes at a time when U.S. domestic debate over withdrawing troops from Iraq and Iran's resurgence have eroded confidence in Washington's 60-year-old commitment to the security of the energy-rich Persian Gulf.
But whether Rice and Gates can overcome deep Arab disappointment with President Bush's record remains to be seen, even with the assistance package they're offering and promises of a more robust diplomatic effort to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Rice accused Iran of backing Middle East terrorist groups, supplying arms to Iraqi groups who attack U.S. soldiers and of seeking nuclear weapons.
"The Iranians should stop their destabilizing activities. That's what they should do," she said.
Taken literally, Rice's comments place U.S. worries about Iran ahead of concerns over the war in Iraq. Although that doesn't seem to square with the reality of the war raging on the ground, it may well describe the situation likely to develop if the United States begins to withdraw from Iraq, leaving a much broader field for Iran to maneuver.
Bush's goals for the unusual Rice-Gates mission may be at cross-purposes.
Another U.S. aim is to persuade Iraq's neighbors, particularly Saudi Arabia, to increase their tepid support for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki.
But the Saudis see Maliki's Shiite Muslim-dominated government as little more than a proxy for Shiite Iran, their historic adversary, and have little incentive to support it.
"I see a (Saudi) government that has concerns about the lack of progress on some of the elements of national reconciliation" in Iraq, Rice acknowledged. She was referring to demands by Iraq's Sunni Muslims for more political power. "They are the same concerns, frankly ... that we've had."
Rice said there's been "a more active Saudi effort" recently to stop Saudi citizens from crossing into Iraq to fight alongside the anti-U.S. insurgency there.
She said she would urge Saudi King Abdullah, whom she and Gates will meet in Jeddah on Tuesday night, to implement a promise to forgive Iraq's debt from the Saddam Hussein era and consider establishing an embassy in Baghdad.
Rice and Gates also will meet Tuesday in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, with top officials from Egypt, Jordan and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
The arms sales to the Persian Gulf monarchies are expected to include advanced air-to-ground munitions, naval upgrades and other technologies.
Already, they've drawn opposition from some members of Congress, who say that the Saudis have done too little to support U.S. goals in Iraq and elsewhere.
Israel and its backers on Capitol Hill also have expressed qualms about the sales.
But a senior official on Gates' aircraft, who briefed reporters on the condition that he not be identified, said the administration "has reason to believe" that Israelis see the "kind of strengthening of some of our friends in the region — particularly vis-a-vis Iran — is in their own interest as well."
Rice, alluding to those concerns, said the White House is determined "there not be a shift in the military balance between the parties in the region. That's extremely important and we have it very much in mind."
After leaving Jeddah, Rice will spend Wednesday and Thursday in Israel and the Palestinian territories. She said the visit there is one of many she expects to make in the coming months, leading up to an international Middle East peace meeting that Bush called for two weeks ago.
(Strobel, who is accompanying Rice, filed from Ireland; Youssef filed from on board Gates' aircraft en route to Egypt.)