Nations Ship Weapons to Middle East Economics Seen as Major Reason That Arms Still Flow to Region

Article excerpt

AFTER THE Persian Gulf War, they "took the pledge." But the big powers, arms purveyors to the world, still cannot seem to stop pouring high-priced weapons into the explosive Middle East.

In a widening stream that keeps assembly lines rolling from Omsk to Oklahoma, weapons exporters have shipped or agreed to ship more than $50 billion in heavyweight armaments to the region in the three years since Iraq invaded Kuwait, new calculations show.

The U.N. Conventional Arms Register, whose 1992 listings will soon be made public, confirms that the United States and four other key producing nations delivered at least 85 planes and 521 tanks and other armored vehicles to Mideast customers last year.

Pending deals far outweigh those. The expected $28 billion to $30 billion in U.S. foreign military sales for this fiscal year is the biggest annual total ever. Most of it is ticketed for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Israel and other Mideast governments.

Two years ago, it looked as if the regional weapons bazaar might be folding some of its tents.

After the war with Iraq, whose military muscle grew on huge weapons purchases in the 1980s, President George Bush told Congress, "It would be tragic if the nations of the Middle East and Persian Gulf were now, in the wake of war, to embark on a new arms race."

Negotiations began among the five permanent U.N. Security Council members - the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France - to scale back military sales.

By late 1991, the five, the world's biggest weapons exporters, had pledged to avoid "destabilizing" Mideast arms deals - a vague commitment to restraint in addition to the flat U.N. ban on weapons sales to Iraq.

But by late last year, the talks had broken down. The flow of armor and air power did not.

In a new estimate, the Arms Control Association, a research organization in Washington, calculates that U.S. military export agreements for the Mideast since August 1990 have totaled $38.8 billion. As for other suppliers, estimates by the Congressional Research Service indicate that non-U.S. military sales in the Mideast approached $20 billion for 1990-92.

Said the Arms Control Association's Lee Feinstein, "These numbers are a legacy of the gulf war and the inability of the big suppliers in the past to come to grips with the problem of an unconstrained flow of arms to the region."

Some current deals:

Saudi Arabia is buying 72 U.S.-built F-15 Eagle planes, mostly advanced fighter-bomber models, for $8. …