Senators Propose Middle East Arms Moratorium While Israel Is Still Ahead

By Wamstead, Dennis J. | Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May/June 1991 | Go to article overview

Senators Propose Middle East Arms Moratorium While Israel Is Still Ahead


Wamstead, Dennis J., Washington Report on Middle East Affairs


Five senior House Democrats wrote President Bush last month urging him to halt -- at least temporarily -- all US arms sales to the Middle East. The letter, drafted by Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO), the House majority leader, calls on Bush to use this "unilateral pause" to begin negotiating a comprehensive and enforceable multilateral agreement to curb arms sales to the region.

In addition to Gephardt, the letter was signed by Reps. Lee Hamilton (D-IN), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, Dante Fascell (D-FL), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, David Obey (D-WI), the chairman of the Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee, and Sam Gedjenson (D-CT), the chairman of the Foreign Affairs International Economic Policy and Trade Subcommittee.

The five argued that sales to countries in the Middle East and Persian Gulf, accounting for roughly 33 percent of all international arms transfers, "help promote an arms race and raise tensions in a region characterized by instability." Further, the five wrote, this arms race "is absorbing resources badly needed for regional economic development."

Leading The Chorus

Even before this, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-DE), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations European Affairs subcommittee, had called for the creation of a supplier group, including the five members of the UN Security Council -- the US, USSR, China, France and the United Kingdom -- and several other major arms suppliers, to monitor and control arms sales to the Mideast.

The goal of this cartel would be to prevent countries in the region from securing the technology "needed to build or deploy offensive ballistic missiles, chemical weapons, biological weapons and nuclear weapons," Biden told his Senate colleagues in a floor statement in March. "This supplier's cartel must also control the proliferation of advanced conventional arms," he continued, calling for the convening of a conference to establish these new controls.

Although far from fruition, Biden held a hearing on his proposal in April and began drafting language to create the supplier group. Similar legislation is being supported in the House by Rep. Mel Levine (D-CA).

Administration Action

While President Bush is on record as opposing a moratorium on conventional arms sales to the Middle East, the congressional initiatives apparently had an impact. According to a report in The Washington Post, the administration is planning to propose an arms control initiative for the Middle East this month that will include a ban on the sale of ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 90 miles. The proposal will also reportedly call for greater reliance on supplier groups, as proposed by Biden and Levine.

The Impact

Exactly what, if any, action Congress and the administration will take on this issue remains uncertain at this point. However, it is almost certainly true that future arms sales will be scrutinized even more closely than past sales, which were difficult proposals in their own right.

The proposed moratoria, if enacted, would have the effect of solidifying Israel's existing qualitative military superiority.

For example, Biden's proposed ban on the sale of nuclear technology to the region ignores the fact that Israel already possesses a large nuclear weapons research and development facility and, in all likelihood, nuclear weapons. …

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