Conventional Arms Exports and Stability in the Middle East

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It is commonly accepted that the Middle East is awash in conventional arms, with pressure for the delivery of ever more exotic, lethal equipment. It is also commonly asserted that such supplies are basically destabilizing and hence that some means or mechanism must be found to control, or at least to reduce, these massive arms sales. While these facts are true, I find the conclusions less than compelling. The overall arms-import problem in the Middle East, now and for the foreseeable future, is a consequence of relations among Israel, the Arab states and Iran, with Turkey as an uneasy but politically marginal player. The export of conventional weapons is, and will remain, dependent on supply and demand rather than on arms-control agreements.

Supply of Arms to the Middle East

It is an indisputable fact that the United States is the world's largest arms producer and exporter. A recent summary article states that U.S. arms sales amounted to $34 billion in the last fiscal year (FY 1994), although they are expected to decline to $13 billion in the current fiscal year (FY 1996) due to budget cuts and stretched-out production schedules in the U.S., as in many other countries.(1) While global figures vary, it is estimated that the U.S. accounts for 70 percent of the world market, with Russia and Germany ranking second and third, respectively.(2) The end of the Cold War has only exacerbated the drive by all producers and exporters to keep old customers and gain new ones.

Not only is there a rising demand for the quantity of weapons sold, but the quality of these weapons exports is also increasing steadily.(3) For example, cruise missiles of several types are especially in demand due to their accuracy and indetectability. Furthermore, it is argued with some plausibility that, had Iran and Iraq succeeded in obtaining additional diesel submarines, such acquisitions could have made a significant difference in the outcome of both the Iran-Iraq War and the Gulf War. William Hartung, in a new book, claims that indiscriminate sales to widely different and politically opposed countries demonstrate that profits and jobs, rather than ideological motives, spur this trade.(4) U.S. domestic politics also are involved as parts for these weapons are made in numerous states represented by powerful politicians. Georgia, the home state of powerful Democratic Senator Sam Nunn and the new Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, is an obvious beneficiary.

The arms trade is enormously complicated by the involvement of national and international interests and players. Few countries can buy these increasingly costly weapons without various types of offsets.(5) For instance, Israel, an important customer, has an enormous number of offset and co-production agreements with the U.S. that could not easily be upset or drastically reduced without producing significant political fallout in both countries.

Budget constraints in all purchaser countries, including the United States since the end of the Cold War, and the disappearance of the single most dangerous potential enemy of the U.S., the Soviet Union, have resulted in military budget cuts in the U.S. and other nations and a consequent reduction in funds at the disposal of arms industries in each country. Nevertheless, the production and export of such weapons remain highly significant to both the U.S. and Russian economies. Although deliberate efforts have been made, both in the U.S. and elsewhere, to disperse production over as wide an area as possible for demographic and economic reasons, the arms industry in the U.S. remains highly concentrated. In states like California, the economic and political effects of declining arms production are felt strongly. This is true to an even greater extent in Russia, where employment in the St. Petersburg area is highly dependent on weapons-industry exports.

Sophisticated weapons systems often require many years for design and development. …