The nuclear deal and militarisation of the Middle East
Support from the Gulf Cooperation Council Countries for the nuclear deal with Iran was attained with promises of substantial increases in arms sales and intelligence sharing, thereby further destabilising the Middle East.
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By Anulekha Nandi
The nuclear deal with Iran required an inevitable balancing of power in the Middle East. The US could not risk antagonizing their long standing allies, especially Saudi Arabia, the regional hegemon. The support of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries was also required to subvert domestic arguments in the US that such a deal would alienate US allies in the region and undermine US strategic interests. Thus, support was attained with promises of substantial increases in arms sales and intelligence sharing, along with other military assistance in the form of special forces training and exercises, cyber-security and maritime interdiction. Egypt also expressed its support for the deal after the delivery of eight F-16 fighter planes.
The increased armed sales to the GCC countries is meant to act as a deterrent to an ascendant Iran unfettered by the mobilisation of frozen assets, lifting of sanctions and fuel revenues. However, arms sales as a strategic tool has been one of the oldest political manoeuvres used by the US to protect its interests in the region; balancing power and improving its balance of payment against oil purchases. Fatigued by the Vietnam War and in-line with the Nixon Doctrine, arms sales and military support also offered a viable way to secure vital strategic US interests in the Middle East through the development of proxies which were to remain dependent on the US for technology and operational knowledge. Such factors in tandem spurred the exponential weapons proliferation in the region and continue to influence trends to this day.
Iran before the revolution was a part of the US twin pillar policy in the Middle East; the other being Saudi Arabia. The transfer of F-4 Phantom fighter bombers to Iran prompted a Saudi request for advanced military capabilities in 1977. However, the deal with Saudi Arabia only materialised with the coming of the Reagan administration. President Ronald Reagan sidestepped Congressional opposition, which had blocked the deal during the Carter administration, to promise the sale of advance military equipment to Saudi Arabia in 1981. The agreement saw the sale of five Advance Warning and Control Systems (AWACS aircraft) but also 1,177 advanced Sidewinder air-to-air missiles, six KC-135 aerial re-fuelling aircraft, and conformal fuel tanks to enhance the range of about 60 F-15 fighters sold in 1978 – for a total value of $8.5 billion.
The sale was advanced on the rhetoric of ‘serious deterioration’ in US strategic interests in the Middle East with the fall of the Shah and the forfeiture of ‘all credibility’ in the region should Congress block it. The AWACs and the F-15 were then some of the most sophisticated weapons systems; F-15 models continue to be used with upgrades and advancements. It is to be noted that the Shah of Iran’s requisition for the F-15s was against policies of the US Department of Defence and was never fulfilled. However, the Saudi Arabian arms deal required the sale of F-15s to Israel, along with a reversal of the ban on Israel’s export of its Kfir jet fighters – manufactured by Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) – to other third world countries.
Though the US has been the major arms supplier to the region, political considerations have sometimes allowed other states to enter the lucrative market. Two episodes are of note here. In 1965 the UK transferred arms to Saudi Arabia which was bolstering the Royalists, after the fall of the imamate in Yemen in 1962, against the Egyptian-backed Republican forces that created the Yemen Arab Republic. Subsequently, when AIPAC or the Israel lobby succeeded in blocking the sale of 48 additional F-15s to Saudi Arabia in the eighties, it acquired 50 Tornado fighter-bombers, 60 Hawk jet trainer aircraft, 80 Wetland Blackhawk helicopters, and six mine sweepers in an historic arms deal with the UK. The deal however proved counter-productive to the entire political exercise undertaken by the AIPAC because of the Tornado’s offensive capabilities compared to F-15’s primarily defensive ones.
In the last ten years the region has seen a 56% rise in arms spending, with Iraq showing the biggest rise in spending of 26%. Saudi Arabia continues to be the region’s largest arms buyer and now the fourth largest in the world. Arms supply in the Middle East still continues to be funneled down a vortex of economic, political and strategic interests. However, weak or failed states and a tangible rise in radical militancy, taking advantage of power vacuums and threatening security, has intensified the region’s armed race. When combined with the idea of Iran – which has already been influencing regional politics as a formidable pole of power even under sanctions, an arms embargo and lack of sophisticated weapons technology – becoming active in the region armed with advanced military capability, it heightens the insecurity of the Gulf states.
Despite advanced weapons proliferation in the region, the purchasing countries, with the exception of Israel, lack the operational knowledge and trained manpower to use advanced weaponry. This makes the countries beholden to foreign military contractors. After the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, when Israel realised its military dependence on the US can restrict it politically and strategically, it created its own research and development and weapons production systems which over the years made it the most militarised country in the world. Israel ranks No. 1 on the Global Militarisation Index 2014. Low wages and low cost of research led to licensing agreements with Western arms manufacturers and co-productions agreements with the US. It also became one of the leading arms exporters in the world, often supplying arms to regimes the US would rather not deal with directly; it also facilitated the Iran-Contra affair.
Arms supplies to the region also facilitates the operation of US bases, which reduces response time whenever US strategic interests are at stake. Arms supply to many countries in the Middle East is also enable and ensure the operation of its bases at strategic locations such as Oman, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain are among the 10 most militarised countries in the region. The military expenditure rating of Oman (5.5) outstrips that of even Saudi Arabia (5.3) and Israel (4.9). Bahrain and Kuwait with ratings of 4.8 each are not too far behind.
However, at present the region’s militarisation cannot be measured by state militarisation alone as it ignores the heavy arms build-up of militant non-state actors like ISIS and other militia and extremist groups. Though their weaponry is not comparable to the State’s in terms of sophistication, they yield sufficient advantage in asymmetric warfare, as proven by the ISIS advances and successes in Iraq. Moreover, unsecured weapons barracks containing advanced heavy weaponry pose a great risk when groups such as ISIS manage to seize weapons when raiding areas in Iraq. Libya also saw the looting of state arsenal by militia in the midst of a political vacuum after the fall of Ghadaffi. It is unrealistic to expect the region’s arms build-up to decline, but it not unreasonable to expect that the arsenals being built are better secured and stacked with weapons that provide a tactical advantage in the asymmetric and unconventional warfare that is becoming the norm in the region.
Anulekha Nandi recently concluded a Research Internship with the Institute of Foreign Policy Studies, Calcutta University, India and is currently pursuing a MSc in Media, Communication and Development at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research is into the ever changing dynamics of the theatre of war, conflict, and intelligence studies.