by Thalif Deen, November 10, 2010
UNITED NATIONS – When the shah of Iran, a strongly pro-U.S. ally, was ousted from power after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the stridently anti-U.S. regime of Ayatollah Khomeini that captured power also inherited a military bonanza: billions of dollars worth of state-of-the-art weapons provided by the United States.
The U.S. equipment in the Iranian military arsenal at that time included some of the most advanced jet fighters and reconnaissance aircraft of that generation: McDonnell Douglas F-4D and F-4E Phantoms, Grumman F-14A Tomcats, Lockheed P-3F Orions, along with Sidewinder and Harpoon missiles and M47 Patton and M60 battle tanks.
The Obama administration’s decision last month to sell billions of dollars worth of weapons to potentially unstable Arab nations in the Gulf – including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, and Bahrain – have triggered fears of possible risks to the United States, if history repeats itself.
The biggest single arms deal – up to $60 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia – has been described as the largest in U.S. history.
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of the U.S. Congress, about $40 billion in arms transfers was authorized to the six Gulf countries between 2005 and 2009, with Saudi Arabia and the UAE as the largest recipients.
Pieter Wezeman, senior researcher in the Arms Transfers Program at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS there have been several concerns, most notably relating to Saudi Arabia.
“It is difficult for me to make a proper assessment of the risk that the Saudi royal house could be toppled and an anti-American or anti-Western government could take over,” he said.
However, the question is a relevant one, he added, as illustrated by the example of Iran and possibly Iraq in the future.
“Iran still uses U.S.-supplied equipment as part of the backbone of its armed forces,” said Wezeman.
In the case of Iran, large and expensive U.S. arms supplies became a symbol of U.S. support for the oppressive regime of the shah and this could be used against him by his opponents, he added.
“It therefore also remains a question how major spending on arms is perceived by the general population in the Gulf states,” he said.
Despite their role as major suppliers of arms to Iraq in the 1980s, it turned out that countries like France and Russia had little leverage over Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in 1990.
The absence of political leverage contradicted one of the arguments used to justify arms sales, namely that arms suppliers could tighten the screws by refusing spares and providing maintenance, according to some defense analysts.
Dr. Natalie J. Goldring, a senior fellow with the Center for Peace and Security Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, told IPS that perpetuating the arms race cycle in the Gulf region has numerous risks.
“One continuing issue is the stability of the Saudi kingdom. If the government falls, we risk adversaries gaining access to sophisticated U.S. weaponry,” she said.
Goldring was also critical of the rash of new defense contracts with Middle Eastern nations, including Israel. “The Obama administration seems to be taking one step forward and two steps backward on arms sales,” she said.
Last year, the administration announced that it would join negotiations toward an Arms Trade Treaty, designed to establish international standards for arms sales. The decision was a welcome reversal of George W. Bush administration policy, Goldring pointed out.
But now, Saudi Arabia has been offered the opportunity to buy more than $60 billion worth of advanced fighter aircraft and military helicopters, as well as various missiles, bombs, and other munitions. This announcement sends precisely the wrong message to the region, she said.
“This package says that its business as usual in the Middle East, fueling yet another round in the regional arms race,” she said.
The proposed sale to Saudi Arabia has received a great deal of media attention, perhaps in part because of its enormous size. But far less attention seems to have been given to the Israeli government signing a recent contract for the new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, said Goldring.
The F-35 contract is less than $3 billion, a relatively small dollar value when compared to the Saudi proposal. But the F-35 is the next generation of fighter aircraft, and hasn’t even been deployed with U.S. forces yet, she noted.
If past patterns hold, said Goldring, supplying the F-35 to Israel at the same time that it is being deployed with U.S. forces will also produce pressure to design the next generation of fighter aircraft – fueling the upward spiral of military spending, as well as the Middle East regional arms race.
SIPRI’s Wezeman told IPS the large sums of money spent by several Gulf states obviously mean a risk of major waste.
Such spending, he pointed out, would need to be accompanied by adequate accountability to determine if and how the spending is connected to clearly established objectives: to prevent that money is not wasted on unneeded equipment, to ensure that other sectors are not neglected, and to prevent corruption.
However, there is basically no transparency in arms procurement in the region, he said.
In finalizing massive arms deals, the United States has hinted that these are primarily meant to strengthen defenses against a potentially nuclear-armed neighbor: Iran.
Wezeman said a key question is how arms-supplying states have made their assessments with regard to the risks involved in supplying arms to Gulf states.
These include future unintended use of the arms within or between countries; the effect on public opinion in the Gulf region of high military expenditure and the diversion of resources away from other sectors; and what Iran might do under pressure of arms supplies to its neighbors.
Iran could either be deterred or be more convinced of a threat from the United States and its Gulf allies, and therefore divert more resources into the military to defend itself, he argued.
Goldring said the independent GAO has recently raised significant concerns over oversight of U.S. arms transfers. Neither the U.S. State Department nor the Department of Defense (DOD) consistently documented how arms transfers to Gulf countries advanced U.S. foreign policy and national security goals.
Announcing a major sale before these concerns have been resolved is another indication that the Obama administration isn’t giving enough attention to the possible short- and long-term costs of arms sales, in terms of regional arms races and instability, said Goldring.