Myths & Facts Online
The Arms Balance
threat from Israel and the withdrawal of the United States' offer to build
the Aswan Dam drove Egypt to seek arms from the Soviet Union in 1955.
This started the Middle East arms race.
The threat from Israel and the withdrawal of the United States' offer to build the Aswan Dam drove Egypt to seek arms from the Soviet Union in 1955. This started the Middle East arms race.
In 1955, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union in anger because the United States had armed Iraq, Egypt's hated rival, and promoted the Baghdad Pact. Nasser opposed that agreement, as he did any defense alliance with the West.
Egypt began to receive Soviet Bloc arms in 1955. The United States, hoping to maintain a degree of influence in Egypt and to induce Nasser to reduce his arms acquisitions, offered to build the Aswan Dam. But Nasser increased his arms orders and spurned a U.S. peace initiative. Egypt had embarked on a policy of "neutralism," which meant that Nasser intended to get aid from both East and West if he could, while maintaining his freedom to attack the West and assist Soviet efforts to gain influence in the Arab and Afro-Asian worlds. As a result of these actions, and Nasser's increasing hostility to the West, the United States withdrew the Aswan offer. Egypt then nationalized the Suez Canal.
Immediately after Nasser made his 1955 arms deal, Israel appealed to the United States — not for a gift of arms, but for the right to purchase them. The U.S. recognized the need to maintain an arms balance, but it referred Israel to France and other European suppliers. It was not until 1962 that the United States agreed to sell Israel its first significant American system, the HAWK anti-aircraft missile.
The Arab states have had to keep pace with an Israeli-led arms race.
In most cases, the reverse was true. Egypt received the Soviet IL-28 bomber in 1955. It was not until 1958 that France provided Israel with a squadron of comparable Sud Vautour twin-jet tactical bombers. In 1957, Egypt obtained MiG-17 fighter planes. Israel received the comparable Super Mystere in 1959. Egypt had submarines in 1957, Israel in 1959. After the Egyptians obtained the MiG-21, the Israelis ordered the Dassault Mirage III supersonic interceptor and fighter-bomber.
Egypt received ground-to-air missiles the SA-2 two years before Israel obtained HAWK missiles from the United States. Later, Washington reluctantly agreed to sell Israel Patton tanks.
Despite being supplied arms at bargain prices in exchange for cotton, and with long-term, cheap-money credits, Egypt's debt to the USSR was estimated to be $11 billion by 1977.1 Israel had to pay much more, plus interest, for comparable weapons.
Even when the United States began selling arms to Israel in the 1960s, it maintained a policy of balance whereby similar sales were made to Arab states. In 1965, for example, the first major tank sale to Israel was matched by one to Jordan. A year later, when Israel received Skyhawks, the U.S. provided planes to Morocco and Libya, as well as additional military equipment to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia.2
It was not until 1968, when the Johnson Administration sold Israel Phantom jets, that America's arms transfer policy shifted to emphasize maintaining the Jewish State's qualitative advantage. Since then, however, the U.S. has frequently sold sophisticated arms (e.g., F-15s, AWACS and Stinger missiles) to Israel's adversaries, which have eroded the Jewish State's qualitative edge.
Israel is militarily superior to its Arab neighbors in every area and has the means to maintain its qualitative edge without outside help.
Israel's qualitative military edge has declined as Arab and Muslim states acquire increasingly sophisticated conventional and unconventional arms. In fact, despite its pledges to the contrary, the United States is allowing Israel's qualitative edge to dissipate. In some cases, U.S. arms transfers to the Arabs are the reason for this erosion.
Israel's standing army is smaller than those of Egypt, Iran and Syria. Even with its reserves, Israel is outmanned by each of the first three. In addition, Israel is likely to have to face a combination of enemies, as it has in each of its previous wars; together, virtually any combination of likely opponents would be superior in manpower, tanks and aircraft.
During the 1990's, the Arab states and Iran imported more than $180 billion worth of the most sophisticated weapons and military infrastructure available from both the Western and Eastern blocs. They continue to spend approximately $30 billion annually on their armed forces. Several of the world's largest arms-importing countries have been Arab nations in a state of war with Israel: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Libya. While Israel spends approximately $9 billion on defense, Saudi Arabia alone spends more than $20 billion.3
In addition to the sheer quantity of arms, these states are also buying and producing increasing numbers of nonconventional weapons. The buildup of chemical and biological weapons, combined with the pursuit of a nuclear capability, makes Israel's strategic position more precarious.
Beyond the security threat, this massive arms build-up also requires Israel to spend a sixth of its GNP on defense. Even this high level of spending is insufficient, however, to meet the Arab threat, as budgetary restrictions have forced Israel to make substantial cuts in its defense allocations. Arab arms sales have significantly raised the cost to Israel of maintaining its own defense, exacerbating the strain on Israel's economy.
Iraq's defeat in the Gulf War ensures that Israel will be facing only Syria in any future conflict. Other Arab involvement is of little importance.
Israel has no choice but to base its defense planning on actual Arab capabilities. If history is any lesson, a future Arab-Israeli conflict will be the result of an alliance of Arab states joining, if only temporarily, to launch a strike at Israel. The Arabs have traditionally put aside their differences at times of conflict with Israel.
Even alone, Syria would pose a serious threat to Israel. Damascus received more than $2 billion from the Gulf states because of the Gulf crisis. Much of this was spent on new modern weaponry to advance Hafez Assad's quest for “strategic parity” with Israel. Today, Syria has 3,700 tanks, more than 500 aircraft, and an army (with reserves) of more than 400,000 soldiers. Syria has also acquired long-range missiles from North Korea and acquired biological and chemical weapons. Syria has first-strike capabilities against key Israeli installations, including air bases and troop mobilization points.
Despite its massive arsenal of Soviet-supplied weaponry, Libya until recently had only limited capability to directly attack Israel. Libya has now acquired the capacity for aerial refueling of its bombers, giving them the means to reach Israel. U.S. intelligence also discovered the construction of a second Libyan chemical plant being built underground, in addition to the now-operational Rabta facility. The latter is estimated to have produced as much as 100 tons of chemical agents. Libya is also a state sponsor of terrorism. It is responsible for the Pan Am 103 bombing in 1988, which resulted in the deaths of more than 200 Americans.
Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states continue to order weapons on a grand scale, seeking to acquire military capabilities far beyond their own defense needs. Though these countries are unlikely to attack Israel, they could supply arms, as they have in the past, to a future Arab coalition fighting Israel.
While Egypt remains formally at peace with Israel and honors its Camp David commitments, Cairo has nevertheless amassed a substantial offensive military capability in recent years. Prudent Israeli military planners have no choice but to carefully monitor Egypt's buildup, should regional events take a dramatic turn for the worse. If the present regime in Cairo should be overthrown, the prospect for continued stable relations with Israel would diminish substantially. Despite its status as a U.S. ally, Egypt has purchased Scud missiles from North Korea and is thought to possess chemical weapons. Its army, air force and navy now field a wide range of the most sophisticated Western arms, many identical to Israel's own weapons.
Prior to the 2003 war, Iraq was viewed as a concern for Israel's security. The U.S.-led coalition's defeat of Saddam Hussein's army eliminated Iraq as an immediatel threat to Israel. It is unclear what policy a new regime will adopt toward Israel, but the hope and expectation is that it will at least be less hostile, if not friendly.
The sale of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia has reduced the need for American troops to defend the Persian Gulf. These weapons pose no threat to Israel.
The Saudi armed forces are structurally incapable of defending their country. They were helpless in the face of the Iraqi threat despite the Saudi acquisition of more than $50 billion in U.S. arms and military services in the decade preceding the Gulf War.4 If Saddam Hussein had continued his blitzkrieg into Saudi Arabia before American forces arrived in August 1990, much of the weaponry the United States sold Riyadh over the years might now be in Iraqi hands.
Even if all past U.S. arms sales to the Saudis had sailed through Congress without question or modification, it is doubtful whether the military equation on the ground, or the decision-making process in Riyadh would have been different. The Saudis' small armed forces cannot unilaterally withstand an assault by a force three to four times its size.
Administration officials frequently argue the Saudis need advanced weapons to counter threats to their security from countries as powerful as the old Soviet Union, but maintain these same weapons would pose no danger to Israel.
The U.S. cannot hand over vast quantities of aircraft and missiles to the Saudi armed forces when it cannot ensure these weapons will not be used against Israel. The "Iran scenario" — that is, the monarchy is overthrown and a more hostile regime takes control of the Saudi arsenal — cannot be ruled out either.
In past Arab-Israeli wars, the Saudis never had a modern arsenal of sufficient size to make their participation in an Arab coalition against Israel a serious concern. The Saudi buildup since the 1973 War changes this equation. The Kingdom could be pressured into offensive action against Israel by other eastern front partners precisely because of this buildup.
Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to conceal its nuclear arsenal, and therefore threatens its neighbors.
Though Israel does not formally acknowledge that it has a nuclear capability, it has been widely reported that Israel has been a member of the nuclear club for a number of years. During that time, Israel has never tested, used, or threatened the use of nuclear weapons.
Israel's decision not to be bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is based largely on the grounds that the treaty has done little to stem nuclear proliferation in the region. Iraq is a signatory to the NPT, and yet was able to amass a large amount of nuclear material without the knowledge of the International Atomic Energy Agency prior to the Israeli attack on its reactor in 1981. More recently, it was discovered that another signatory to the NPT, Iran, has had a secret nuclear weapons program for more than a decade and now may have a bomb within five years.
Israel has called for the creation of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East and has stated many times that it will not be the first state to introduce nuclear weapons into the region.
Arms control in the Middle East is impossible so long as Israel refuses to give up its nuclear weapons.
Israel's assumed nuclear deterrent is an option of last resort, needed to offset the threats it faces from the large imbalance in conventional arms, chemical weapons and ballistic missiles possessed by the Arab states. Israel has no incentive to unilaterally attack its neighbors with nuclear weapons whereas the Arabs as history has shown have both the capability and motivation to join in a war against Israel.
The desire of Arab and Islamic regimes to obtain weapons of mass destruction also has more to do with notions of national pride and rivalries with other than nations than Israel's arsenal. For example, Saddam Hussein used his chemical weapons against a domestic threat, the Kurds, and Iraq's motivation for pursuing nuclear weapons was the threat Hussein felt from Iran.6 Pakistan developed the first “Islamic bomb” to counter rival India's bomb. And Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has said, “Iran has a high technical capability and has to be recognized by the international community as a member of the nuclear club. This is an irreversible path.”7
Arms control must therefore begin with a reduction in Arab military offensive capability. Arab “arms control” proposals in essence have only called for Israel to give up nuclear arms without offering anything substantive in return.
“Egypt is no longer a military threat since signing a peace treaty with Israel.”
While Egypt remains formally at peace with Israel and honors its Camp David commitments, Cairo has nevertheless amassed a substantial offensive military capability in recent years. Prudent Israeli military planners have no choice but to carefully monitor Egypt’s buildup in case regional events take a dramatic turn for the worse. If the present regime in Cairo were overthrown, for example, the prospect for continued stable relations with Israel would diminish substantially.
Despite its status as a U.S. ally, Egypt has purchased Scud missiles from North Korea and is believed to possess chemical weapons.8 Its army, air force and navy now field a wide range of the most sophisticated Western arms, many identical to Israel’s own weapons. In 2003, for example, Egypt requested F15 jets armed with JDAM (joint direct attack munition) “smart” bombs. These sophisticated weapons were used by U.S. forces in the 2003 war with Iraq.
Such sales are a matter of concern for Israel because the principal threats faced by Egypt today are internal ones. No nation poses any danger to Egypt. So why has Egypt been spending billions of dollars to amass an arsenal that includes 3,000 tanks and more than 500 aircraft, especially when it has serious economic problems caused in large measure by an exponentially growing population that does not have enough food, shelter, or employment?
If Egypt's military simulations are any indication of the regime's thinking, Israel has good reason to worry. Egyptian forces have staged large-scale military training exercises that included simulated operations crossing into the Sinai against an unnamed adversary to the east (i.e., Israel). In fact, Israel is the “enemy” in all of Egypt’s war games.
In December 2003, Israel protested Egypt’s use of unmanned aerial vehicles, drones, to spy on Israeli military facilities. Israel reportedly threatened to shoot down the drones whose flights violate the peace treaty and prompted increased concern over Egypt’s military buildup.9
Israel is also worried about the looming succession crisis in Egypt. President Hosni Mubarak is 75 and has been the Nation’s ruler since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981. No one knows who will follow Mubarak. Given the strong Muslim fundamentalist movement in the country, and the antipathy of the military toward Israel, it is by no means certain that Mubarak’s successor will maintain the “cold peace” that has prevailed now for nearly 30 years.
“Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power and poses no threat to Israel or the United States.”
Iran has made no secret of its antipathy for Israel and the United States and has become one of the most serious threats to stability in the Middle East. American and Israeli intelligence assessments agree that the Islamic regime in Iran will be able to complete a nuclear weapon within five years sooner if a device or substantial technical assistance is acquired abroad. Iranian opposition figures have said the regime is intensifying its efforts to complete a weapon with the hope of building a device within the next two years.
In 1990, China signed a 10-year nuclear cooperation agreement that allowed Iranian nuclear engineers to obtain training in China. In addition, China has already built a nuclear research reactor in Iran that became operational in 1994. In 2002, Iran revealed that it had purchased special gas from China that could be used to enrich uranium for the production of nuclear weapons.
Iran is a signatory to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which allows the peaceful pursuit of nuclear technology, including uranium mining and enrichment, under oversight by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The gas purchase was supposed to be reported to the IAEA, but it was concealed instead. Chinese experts have also been involved in the supervision of the installation of centrifuge equipment that can be used to enrich uranium.
According to the CIA, “Iran continues to use its civilian nuclear energy program to justify its efforts to establish domestically or otherwise acquire the entire nuclear fuel cycle. Iran claims that this fuel cycle would be used to produce fuel for nuclear power reactors, such as the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor that Russia is continuing to build at the southern port city of Bushehr. However, Iran does not need to produce its own fuel for this reactor because Russia has pledged to provide the fuel throughout the operating lifetime of the reactor and is negotiating with Iran to take back the irradiated spent fuel.”10
In 2002, two previously unknown nuclear facilities were discovered in Iran. One in Arak produces heavy water, which could be used to produce weapons. The other is in Natanz. An Iranian opposition group claimed that Iranian officials removed sensitive equipment installed at Natanz to hide it from IAEA inspectors who were scheduled to visit the plant.
In February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced the discovery of urnaium reserves near the central city of Yazd and said Iran was setting up production facilities “to make use of advanced nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.”11 This was an alarming development because it suggested Iran was attempting to obtain the means to produce and process fuel itself, despite the agreement to receive all the uranium it would need for civilian purposes from Russia.
Further evidence of Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons was revealed in late 2003 and early 2004 when Pakistan's top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, admitted he provided nuclear weapons expertise and equipment to Iran, as well as North Korea and Libya. The Iranian government, confronted in February 2004 with new evidence obtained from the secret network of nuclear suppliers surrounding Khan, acknowledged it had a design for a far more advanced high-speed centrifuge to enrich uranium than it previously revealed to the IAEA. This type of centrifuge would allow Iran to produce nuclear fuel far more quickly than the equipment that it reluctantly revealed to the agency in 2003. This revelation proved that Iran lied when it claimed to have turned over all the documents relating to their enrichment program.
After pledging to suspend its nuclear program, the IAEA reported in June 2004 that Iran was continuing to make parts and materials that could be used in the manufacture of nuclear arms. The report also cited continuing evidence that Iran misled inspectors with many of its early claims, especially on questions about where it obtained critical components. For example, Iranian officials admitted that some of those parts were purchased abroad, after initially insisting that Iran had made them itself.13
In July 2004, the Telegraph (July 27) reported Iran had broken the seals on nuclear equipment monitored by UN inspectors and was again building and testing machines that could make fissile material for nuclear weapons. Teheran's move violated an agreement with European countries under which Iran suspended “all uranium enrichment activity.” Defying a key demand set by 35 nations, Iran announced September 21, 2004, that it had started converting raw uranium into the gas needed for enrichment, a process that can be used to make nuclear weapons. A couple of weeks later, Iran announced it had processed several tons of raw “yellowcake” uranium to prepare it for enrichment — a key step in developing atomic weapons.14
Iran agreed in a meeting in Tehran with French, German, and British ambassadors on November 14, 2004, to immediately suspend its nuclear programs in exchange for European guarantees that it will not face the prospect of UN Security Council sanctions as long as their agreement holds. The European deal will require months, and possibly years, of further negotiations before Iran agrees to permanently end its nuclear work and falls far short of the strategic decision the Bush administration said Tehran needs to make to convince the world it is not a danger.15 In addition, Bushehr is not covered under the EU-Iranian deal.
Shortly after the Iranian-European agreement, the National Council of Resistance, an Iranian opposition group said Iran had bought blueprints for a nuclear bomb and obtained weapons-grade uranium on the black market. The group also charged that Iran was still secretly enriching uranium at an undisclosed Defense Ministry site in Tehran.16
Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States has intelligence indicating Iran is trying to fit missiles to carry nuclear weapons, which he initmated would only make sense if Iran was also developing or planning to develop a nuclear capability. “There is no doubt in my mind — and it's fairly straightforward from what we've been saying for years — that they have been interested in a nuclear weapon that has utility, meaning that it is something they would be able to deliver, not just something that sits there,” Powell said.17 A few days later, the Central Intelligence Agency issued a report that says the arms trafficking network led by Pakistani nuclear scientist A. Q. Khan provided Iran’s nuclear program with “significant assistance,” including the designs for “advanced and efficient” weapons components.
Iran's chief nuclear negotiator Hassan Rohani claimed a “great victory” over the U.S. in November 2004 after the UN said it would not punish Iran's nuclear activities with sanctions. Rohani said Iran would never give up its right to nuclear power and stressed during talks with European countries that Iran’s freeze on uranium enrichment was only temporary.18 In response, President Bush said, “The Iranians agreed to suspend but not terminate their nuclear weapons program. Our position is that they ought to terminate their nuclear weapons program.”19
Brigadier General Yossi Kuperwasser, the head of Israel Military Intelligence's research department, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Iran is expected to have full nuclear ability by early 2007.20
Masud Yazaiari, spokesperson of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, warned that Iran would respond to any Israeli efforts to stop their nuclear program. “Their threats to attack our nuclear facilities will not succeed,” Yazaiari said. “They are aware that Tehran's response would be overwhelming and would wipe Israel off the face of the earth.”21
1Adeed Dawisha and Karen
Dawisha, Eds., The Soviet Union in the Middle East, Policies and perspectives,
(NY: Holmes and Meier, 1982), pp. 8, 11, 15.
To order the paperback edition, click HERE.