November 1, 2007  

Flashpoint: Arms racing

Middle East nations rush to shore up sophisticated weapons stocks

Instability in Iraq, sectarian violence, Islamic extremism, ethnic rivalries, the rise of Iran and questions about America’s long-term commitment to the region are making for a Middle East more unsettled than at any time in recent memory.

So it shouldn’t come as a shock that a Middle East arms race — both conventional and nuclear — may be in the offing as states hustle to get weapons that ensure their security bets are well hedged against current and future threats.

Taking a look at the political-military landscape around the Middle East, from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, there’s no shortage of well-founded reasons for strategic insomnia in regional capitals.

Topping the list of problems is the cocky, ascendant Islamic Republic of Iran. In the eyes of many, Tehran’s regional policies are more troubling than at any time since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the fall of the Shah.

Although none of the region’s Muslim states like the fact that Israel has long had an undeclared nuclear weapons program, the likelihood that Iran’s ayatollahs will become atomic seems all but inevitable. Iran is also supporting elements of the insurgencies in Iraq (Shiite militias) and Afghanistan (the Taliban). As if that weren’t enough, Tehran is propping up fundamentalist Hezbollah in Lebanon and radical Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Navy is conducting aggressive maneuvers in the Persian Gulf amid threats by Tehran to attack oil facilities — and close the strategic Strait of Hormuz to tanker traffic.

Syria is giving its neighbors heartburn, as well. Its close ties with predominantly Persian Iran make none of the region’s Arab states very happy; nor does Damascus’ blind eye to the hordes of jihadists, who transit Syria to destabilize Iraq. The Israeli raid into Syria in September against a “military target” has everyone chattering — and jittery. The possibility of Syrian-North Korean cooperation on anything beyond ballistic missiles, such as a nuclear program, is utterly unnerving.

Moreover, last summer saw no shortage of rumors of an impending Syrian-Israeli war, or even another Israeli-Hezbollah conflict. The militant Lebanese Shiite group spent the past year re-arming, courtesy of Iranian and Syrian sponsors.

No one in the Middle East, with the possible exception of Iran and Syria, takes comfort in the sectarian and ethnic vio¬lence in Iraq, either — or at the idea that Iraq will spin apart into its Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish components.

The rise of militant Islam is another cause of dyspepsia in the region’s capitals. Lebanon fought for several months this year against an al-Qaida-inspired (possibly al-Qaida-associated) group, Fatah al Islam, that was holed up in a Palestinian refugee camp.

In a summer stunner, Hamas forcefully expelled its political rival, secular Fatah, from the Gaza Strip, creating concern not only for the Middle East peace process, but also that Gaza might become an operating base for even more regional militancy. It goes without saying that no state is sanguine about the possibility of a yet-to-be identified Taliban-like resistance movement or homegrown al-Qaida-style wannabes popping up in their midst.


Not surprisingly, as the winds of war swirl across the region, Middle Eastern states are taking steps to shore up their security. As a result, there’s no shortage of arms buyers and sellers.

Last summer, the U.S. announced $20 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and neighboring Persian Gulf states: Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Although the sales are still controversial on Capitol Hill — surprisingly, in some cases, more so than in Israel — the deal reportedly includes Joint Direct Attack Munitions, electronic warfare gear, UAVs, fighter upgrades, missile defense systems and new naval vessels. Another $13 billion in weapons was proposed for Egypt over 10 years. And Israel, ever mindful of maintaining its qualitative military edge, could get as much as $30 billion worth of new U.S. arms and equipment over the same period.

Russia, no shrinking violet when it comes to arms sales, is also increasingly active in the Middle East. Russia is now the world’s second biggest arms seller to the developing world — including supplying the lion’s share of Iran’s conventional arms.

In fact, Russia agreed to sell Iran $700 million worth of sur¬face-to-air missile (SAM) systems (likely the TOR M-1) last year, which would come in handy in defending Iran’s nuclear-related sites against air attack. Moscow also plans to upgrade Tehran’s Su-24 and MiG-29 aircraft (some famously flown to Iran during the 1991 Persian Gulf War by fleeing Iraqi pilots), and T-72 main battle tanks. Iran is rumored to be interested in S-300 SAMs, Su-30 fighters and Il-78 airborne tankers, too.

Russia has also forgiven most — maybe all — of Syria’s Cold War arms debt, allowing Syrian generals to shop till they drop. Although information is murky, Damascus may be into Moscow for $1 billion in air defense systems, possibly the Pantsyr-S1E.

Moscow is playing in Washington’s sandbox, too, reaching an agreement with the UAE in September for air defense sys¬tems and armored personnel carriers, as well as the launching of the DubaiSat-1 satellite.

The British are in the arms games, as well. Notwithstanding allegations of corruption in an earlier Tornado jet deal, Saudi Arabia (now the developing world’s third-largest arms buyer) has agreed to buy 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, worth almost $9 billion.

Asians are also increasingly involved in the Middle East arms bazaar. China will have a world-class defense industry in the next 10 to 15 years, and is increasingly interested in getting its foot in the arms market door. Beijing already provides Tehran with a number of systems, including the highly-capa¬ble C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles. (Hezbollah, or the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, used this missile against an Israeli destroyer during the 2006 war.)

In addition, in the late 1980s, China secretly sold Saudi Arabia the nuclear-capable, medium-range DF-3 (CSS-2) ballistic missile. Some analysts believe Beijing is involved in upgrading these 20-year-old missiles for deterring Iran.

North Korea hawks its favorite export, ballistic missiles, in the Middle East, too. Pyongyang has sold its medium-range No Dong technology to the Iranians for their Shahab missile, as well as short-range Scud missiles to the Syrians.


Some insist the avalanche of prospective weapons deals is part of a Bush administration plan to contain Iran — plus empha¬size America’s long-term commitment to regional security, especially with rough sledding in — and calls for withdrawal from — Iraq.

According to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the arms sales aim to “bolster forces of moderation and support a broader strategy to counter the negative influences of al-Qaida, Hezbollah, Syria and Iran.” The Bush administration may also be trying to encourage Middle Eastern states such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt to assist Iraq, which many Sunni Arab nations see as dominated by the Shiites, symbolized by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Indeed, the Saudis have snubbed Maliki since he took office, refusing to meet him. Riyadh apparently sees him as a pawn of Tehran — and as not having done enough to protect Iraq’s Sunni population. Saudi Arabia still doesn’t have an embassy in Baghdad.

Washington may also be trying to ply the likes of Riyadh and Cairo with arms sales to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, rein in Hamas, loosen Damascus’ embrace of Tehran and ensure continued access to regional energy supplies. Some gulf nations are eager to have a powerful backer in the face of Iran’s growing strength; those that host U.S. forces or bases (40,000 ashore; 20,000 afloat) want the capability to protect themselves from retribution should the Iran matter go “hot.”

Russia wants to increase its clout in the Middle East, through arms sales — or otherwise. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had a significant amount of clout in the region based on its anti-Israel and anti-American stance. Today, Russian nostalgia for the good old days, as well as its desire to develop markets for its competitive but declining arms industries, guide Kremlin policy — not to mention develop¬ing sway with Gulf states for the formation of a natural gas OPEC.

Moscow is also interested in balancing U.S. power (Russian President Putin visited the UAE, Qatar and Saudi Arabia this year) and discouraging anyone (e.g., Saudi Arabia or Iran) from causing mischief among Russia’s restive Muslim population.

British interests generally align themselves with American goals, and China, now the world’s second-largest energy con¬sumer, is keen on access to energy supplies, including investing $100 billion in the Iranian energy sector over the next 25 years.

The situation is, without question, troubling, but it gets worse.


Iran is obviously involved in a nuclear program that includes uranium enrichment and the development of the complete nuclear fuel cycle. Many believe it reeks of a clandestine nuclear weapons program, despite Tehran’s protestations to the contrary. Although good estimates are hard to come by as a result of a lack of transparency in the Iranian program, esti¬mates of an Iranian nuclear breakout range from three years on one end to a decade or more at the other. Worse yet, Iranian nuclear denial and deception games are inspiring others in the region to get into the atomic act, as well, spurring not only a conventional arms race, but potentially a nuclear one.

Just since last year, as suspicions about Iran have grown to a near fever pitch, several states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, told the United Nations’ International Atomic Energy Agency they’re launching “peaceful” nuclear programs.

Beyond Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Jordan and Yemen have openly talked of pursuing nuclear power in recent months. And there’s no guarantee the list won’t grow even longer, either. This is no small undertaking. Building a nuclear pro¬gram takes six to 10 years and considerable expense ($1 bil¬lion-plus per reactor). But eyeing Iran’s breakneck pace, regional states may well think they don’t have a moment to waste.

In addition, considering the likely militarization of Iran’s program, there’s good reason to expect possible clandestine nuclear weapons research and development programs among the region’s newest nuclear aspirants.

There’s little doubt that these states’ decisions to start nuclear programs — or restart long-mothballed programs — were guided and tempered at least in part by their plummet¬ing faith in anyone’s ability, especially the U.N.’s, to rein in Iran’s runaway nuclear program.

One can’t ignore motivation that derives from Israel’s unde¬clared nuclear arsenal, either. In fact, calls for a Middle East nuclear-weapons-free zone have been revived, aimed at Israel — and now, of course, Iran.

The question is: In a decade or so, if these programs do go forward, will we see a map of the Middle East dotted with new peaceful nuclear-power reactors — or dotted with new nuclear-weapons states? Or both?

In many respects, security problems in the Middle East only seem to be growing, fueled by ideology, ethnic and sectarian divisions, as well as traditional issues of geopolitics, national¬ism, sovereignty and hegemony.

Although Iran’s rise is a significant destabilizing factor, it’s not the only one. In fact, according to Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns, “the Iran element is one factor, but it’s not the overriding factor why we’re doing [the arms sales].”

It is also likely that the Bush administration wants to make an unambiguous investment in regional friends and allies and U.S. strategic interests in the region, while balanc¬ing the big power political push of Russia and China for influence, too.

Is a Middle East arms race inevitable? Not necessarily. But in the end, a lot will depend on the unfolding of difficult-to-pre¬dict events, especially surrounding Iran — meaning Washington had best be prepared for a wide range of troubling possibilities.

Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who also served in the Navy, with the CIA and on Capitol Hill.