Chapter 22: Arms Balance
- “Israel is militarily superior to its neighbors and has nothing to fear from them.”
- “U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia enhance the kingdom’s security and pose no threat to Israel.”
- “Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non--Proliferation Treaty allows it to conceal its nuclear arsenal and threaten its neighbors.”
- “Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power.”
- “Israel has nothing to fear from a nuclear Iran.”
- “Iran’s nuclear program threatens only Israel.”
“Israel is militarily superior to its neighbors and has nothing to fear from them.”
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 Egypt and Iran. 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 added another $40 billion worth of materiel to their arsenals in the following decade.1 In 2010, the U.S. alone (other countries also supply weapons to Arab states) planned to sell $60.1 billion worth of some of America’s most sophisticated arms to Saudi Arabia (the largest arms sale in U.S. history). Other Arab states were also offered large packages, including the United Arab Emirates ($5.4 billion), Iraq ($4.9 billion), Oman ($3.6 billion), and Kuwait ($1.6 billion). 2
Since 2009, Saudi Arabia has purchased nearly 200 combat aircraft, 100 combat helicopters and 550 tanks in addition to various air-to-surface missiles. 3 In 2010, Syria renewed its military purchases from Russia, obtaining hundreds of Grison SA-19 Surface-to-Air missiles and the promise of additional weapons. Despite being subjected to a UN arms embargo, Iran has procured hundreds of anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-ship missiles from China, Russia and North Korea. 4 Egypt purchased $6.8 billion worth of arms in the last decade. Additionally, transparency in arms transfers in the Middle East is extremely poor. Since 1998 only Israel, Jordan and Turkey have regularly submitted substantive reports to the UN Register of Conventional Arms, detailing their imports and exports of major conventional weapons. 5
Israel allocates about $13 billion for defense annually, while Iran and the Arab states, many of which are in a state of war with Israel, spend more than $70 billion a year. 6 In addition to the quantity of weapons, Israel must also be concerned with the erosion of its qualitative edge as the Arab states acquire increasingly sophisticated systems.
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 by Iran, Syria and possibly other Arab states (12 have either announced plans to explore atomic energy or signed nuclear cooperation agreements for “peaceful purposes”), makes Israel’s strategic position more precarious.
The unrest in the Arab world has also increased the potential threats to Israel. The fall of the Mubarak regime in Egypt and uncertainty about that country’s future could have a profound impact on Israel’s security. If a future regime reneges on the peace treaty, Israel would have to dramatically reframe its strategy to prepare for the possibility of conflict with Egypt. If Egypt becomes more supportive of Hamas in the Gaza Strip or other terrorists, it will have to adapt to these threats. The takeover of Lebanon by Hezbollah and its rearmament by Iran and Syria has significantly increased the danger to northern Israel. If Jordan were to be destabilized, then Israel could find itself in the same position it was in prior to 1978 when it was surrounded by enemies.
Even before the “Arab Spring,” Israel expressed concern about the sale of U.S. weapons to Arab states because of “the narrowing of the qualitative gap by potential adversaries.” The U.S. provides cutting edge American weapons and technology as well as training to Arab armed forces, which significantly enhance their capabilities. Israel fears that erosion of its qualitative edge may influence the intentions of their enemies. Israel also worries “that some of the capabilities may, under certain circumstances, fall into the hands of terror elements.”7
Beyond the security threat, the massive Arab arms build-up also requires Israel to spend about 7 percent of its GDP on defense, exacerbating the strain on Israel’s economy. Moreover, even this high level of spending may be insufficient to meet the Arab/Iranian threat.
“U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia enhance the kingdom’s security and 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 in 1990–91, despite the Saudi acquisition of more than $50 billion in U.S. arms and military services in the decade preceding the Gulf War. 8 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 to Riyadh over the years might have fallen into Saddam’s hands.
The U.S. has no way to ensure that the vast quantities of aircraft and missiles it sells to Saudi Arabia will not be used against Israel. The possibility of these weapons falling into the hands of enemies of the United States cannot be ruled out either, given the Saudis’ documented support for terrorists and the possibility that the monarchy could be overthrown by a more hostile regime. Moreover, it makes no sense to say that advanced American weapons can help the Saudis counter external threats but that those same arms pose no danger to Israel.
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 has grown increasingly concerned with the Saudi buildup and aggressive activities. In addition to concerns over Saudi involvement in past wars, opposition to peace and ongoing involvement in terrorism, the Israelis complained to U.S. officials about the Saudis conducting “unusual and sometimes aggressive air activity from the Tabuq airfield.” In particular, Israel said that Saudi interceptors had “repeatedly scrambled in response to routine Israeli air activity in the Eilat Gulf,” actions that “could be interpreted as indicating hostile intentions.” 9 Furthermore, the deployment to Tabuq constitutes a fundamental violation of promises given to Israel by the United States when it sold the planes to the Saudis.
“Israel’s refusal to sign the Nuclear Non?Proliferation Treaty allows it to conceal its nuclear arsenal and threaten 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, has in fact, pledged never to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the region and proven through the wars since acquiring a bomb that it will use only conventional weapons to defend its security.
Like India, Israel has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Israel’s decision 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.
Iran is also a signatory to the NPT and was discovered to have had a secret nuclear weapons program for more than a decade. Even after the disclosure, Iran has defied the international community and continued to enrich uranium for the purpose, most believe, of building a nuclear weapon.
Another signatory to the treaty, Syria, was accused of pursuing a nuclear weapon after Israel bombed a suspected weapons facility in 2007. The CIA subsequently said it was a plutonium reactor being built with the help of North Korea. 10
“I wish Israel did not need defensive weapons of mass destruction or the region’s most powerful defense forces. I wish the world had not driven the Jewish State into allocating its limited resources away from its universities and toward its military, but survival must come first, and Israel’s military strength is the key to its survival. Anyone who believes that survival can be assured by moral superiority alone must remember the Warsaw Ghetto and the Treblinka gas chambers.”
— Alan Dershowitz 11
“Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power.”
American and Israeli intelligence assessments suggest that the Islamic regime in Iran will have a nuclear weapon within a few years (estimates have changed but are typically 3–5 years) or possibly sooner if its current program is not slowed or stopped. Evidence of Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was revealed in 2002 with the discovery of two previously unknown nuclear facilities in Arak and Natanz. This was followed by the admission by Pakistan’s top nuclear scientist, Abdul Qadeer Khan, that he provided nuclear weapons expertise and equipment to Iran.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said United States intelligence indicated Iran is trying to fit missiles to carry nuclear weapons. “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. 12
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad defended his country’s right to produce nuclear fuel in a fiery speech to the UN General Assembly and later raised worldwide concern about nuclear proliferation when he said, “Iran is ready to transfer nuclear know-how to the Islamic countries due to their need.”13
In fact, nuclear proliferation is one of the most serious dangers posed by Iran’s program. In addition to what Iran might do, there is also the likelihood that its neighbors will feel the need to build their own weapons in the hope of creating a nuclear deterrent.
The international concensus opposing Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons is reflected in the actions taken by the UN. On July 31, 2006, the Security Council approved Resolution 1696, giving Iran until August 31 to verifiably suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing-related activities and implement full transparency measures requested by the IAEA. Iran’s top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, responded to the resolution by insisting that Iran would expand uranium enrichment activities. 14
On December 23, 2006, the Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 1737 “blocking the import or export of sensitive nuclear materiel and equipment and freezing the financial assets of persons or entities supporting its proliferation sensitive nuclear activities or the development of nuclear-weapon delivery systems.” The resolution required Iran to suspend “all enrichment-related and reprocessing activities, including research and development; and work on all heavy-water related projects, including the construction of a research reactor moderated by heavy water.” The Council also decided that “all States should prevent the supply, sale or transfer, for the use by or benefit of Iran, of related equipment and technology, if the State determined that such items would contribute to enrichment-related, reprocessing or heavy-water related activities, or to the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems.” Iran again ignored the resolution.
On February 22, 2007, the IAEA found Iran in violation of a Security Council ultimatum to freeze uranium enrichment and other demands meant to dispel fears that it intends to build nuclear weapons. Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki responded that Iran would never suspend uranium enrichment. 15
In January 2010, President Obama’s top advisers said they did not believe the governmewnt’s earlier National Intelligence Estimate’s conclusion that Iranian scientists ended all work on designing a nuclear warhead in late 2003. The following month, President Obama announced new unilateral sanctions by the United States. A day later, Iran announced it had begun enriching uranium to a higher level of purity, 20 percent, which is a step closer to producing weapons-grade uranium. 16
The May 2010 IAEA report said Iran had produced a stockpile of nuclear fuel that, with further enrichment, would be sufficient to build two nuclear weapons. 17
A lot of attention has focused on President Ahmadinejad because of his belligerent rhetoric, explicit threats against Israel and Holocaust denial. If he were to disappear tomorrow, however, the threat from Iran would remain because the desire to build nuclear weapons predated his regime and is considered a matter of national pride, even by Iranians who are considered pro-West.
The issue has also been falsely cast as one driven by Israeli fears, but, despite all the noise Iran makes about the “Zionist entity,” and its patron, Iran’s principal strategic interest is regional domination, and the countries that are most concerned are its immediate Arab neighbors. Iran wants to dominate the oil industry, to influence policy in the Middle East, and to become a major player in global politics. This would likely be the case whoever ran the country.
Given the unlikelihood of a counterrevolution in Iran, more active measures are required to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Everyone desires a political solution, but it is clear Iran has used diplomacy as a means to delay drastic measures by the international community while accelerating its work on uranium enrichment.
Economic sanctions are also being flouted by the Iranians and undermined by companies in Western countries that find ways to circumvent them, and by the governments of Russia and China, which have signed multibillion dollar business deals that undercut the impact of the sanctions. A military option exists, but it also poses serious risks to regional stability, future relations with Iran and the nation(s) that carries out the mission. It is in the interest of the international community, therefore, to do everything possible to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability before it is too late.
“Israel has nothing to fear from a nuclear Iran.”
Jews have learned from painful history that when someone threatens to kill them, they should take it seriously. Therefore, no one should be surprised at the alarm expressed by Israel after hearing Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad proclaim, “This origin of corruption [Israel] will soon be wiped off the Earth’s face!” and Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i, Iran’s Supreme Leader, declaring, “Israel is a cancerous tumor. So what do you do with a cancerous tumor? What can be done to treat a tumor other than removing it?”
Some argue Iran would never launch a nuclear attack against Israel because no Muslim leader would risk an Israeli counterstrike that might destroy them. This theory doesn’t hold up, however, if the Iranian leaders believe there will be destruction anyway at the end of time. What matters, Middle East expert Bernard Lewis observed, is that infidels go to hell and believers go to heaven. Lewis quotes a passage from Ayatollah Khomeini, cited in an 11th grade Iranian schoolbook, “I am decisively announcing to the whole world that if the world-devourers [the infidel powers] wish to stand against our religion, we will stand against the whole world and will not cease until the annihilation of all of them. Either we all become free, or we will go to the greater freedom, which is martyrdom. Either we shake one another’s hands in joy at the victory of Islam in the world, or all of us will turn to eternal life and martyrdom. In both cases, victory and success are ours.”18
Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, believes the most important task of the Iranian Revolution was to prepare the way for the return of the Twelfth Imam, who disappeared in 874, thus bringing an end to Muhammad’s lineage. Shiites believe this imam, the Mahdi or “divinely guided one,” will return in an apocalyptic battle in which the forces of righteousness will defeat the forces of evil and bring about a new era in which Shi’a Islam ultimately becomes the dominant religion throughout the world. The Shiites have been waiting patiently for the Twelfth Imam for more than a thousand years, but Ahmadinejad may believe he can now hasten the return through a nuclear war. It is this apocalyptic world view, Lewis notes, that distinguishes Iran from other governments with nuclear weapons.
There are those who think that Iran would never use such weapons against Israel because innocent Muslims would be killed as well; however, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, explicitly said he wasn’t concerned about fallout from an attack on Israel. “If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in its possession,” he said, “the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.” As one Iranian commentator noted, Rafsanjani apparently wasn’t concerned that the destruction of the Jewish State would also result in the mass murder of Palestinians as well. 19
Iran will not have to use nuclear weapons to influence events in the region. By possessing a nuclear capability, the Iranians can deter Israel or any other nation from attacking Iran or its allies. When Hezbollah attacked Israel in 2006, for example, a nuclear Iran could have threatened retaliation against Tel Aviv if Israeli forces bombed Beirut. The mere threat of using nuclear weapons would be sufficient to drive Israelis into shelters and could cripple the economy. Will immigrants want to come to a country that lives in the shadow of annihilation? Will companies want to do business under those conditions? Will Israelis be willing to live under a nuclear cloud?
If you were the prime minister of Israel, would you take seriously threats to destroy Israel by someone who might soon have the capability to carry them out? Could you afford to take the risk of allowing Iran to acquire nuclear weapons? How long would you wait for sanctions or other international measures to work before acting unilaterally to defend your country?
“Iran’s nuclear program threatens only Israel.”
Israel is not alone in its concern about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. In fact, the nations most worried about Iran are its immediate neighbors who have no doubts about the hegemonic ambitions of the radical Islamists in Tehran.
Iran’s Arab neighbors have accused it of threatening the sovereignty and independence of the Kingdom of Bahrain and territories of the United Arab Emirates, “issuing provocative statements against Arab states,” and interfering in the affairs of the Palestinians, Iraq and Morocco. 20
In statements challenging Bahrain’s sovereignty, Iranian officials renewed claims that the kingdom was actually a part of the Persian Empire. The effect of Iran’s saber rattling, journalist Giles Whittell wrote, “is especially chilling in Bahrain as the only Sunni-led country with a Shia majority that is not at war or on the brink of war.”21 Arab League Deputy Secretary-General Ahmad Bin Hali angrily denounced Iran’s claims to Bahrain while former Bahraini army chief of staff Sheik Maj.-Gen. Khalifa ibn Ahmad al-Khalifa said Iran stirs trouble in many Gulf nations. “[Iran] is like an octopus—it is rummaging around in Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Gaza and Bahrain,” al-Khalifa proclaimed.22
“The United States and the international community are determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
— President Barrack Obama 23
The Crown Prince of Bahrain was the first Gulf leader to explicitly accuse Iran of lying about its weapons program. “While they don’t have the bomb yet, they are developing it, or the capability for it,” Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa said. 24
Iran also reasserted its authority over three islands of the United Arab Emirates that it forcibly seized in the early 1970s and continues to occupy. While joint sovereignty was maintained between Iran and the UAE over the Abu Musa and Greater and Lesser Tunbs islands until 1994, Iran significantly increased its military capabilities on Abu Musa, stationed Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers there, and expelled foreign workers in attempts to assert full control of the island. The United Nations General Assembly, the Arab League, and the Arab Parliamentary Union have all affirmed their support for the UAE and have made clear that Iran illegally occupies the islands. 25
The Iranian threat is felt in Arab states beyond the Gulf as well. Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran in response to the inflammatory statements concerning Bahrain and hostile activity by Iranians inside Morocco. Morocco’s foreign ministry accused the Iranian diplomatic mission in Rabat of interfering in the internal affairs of the kingdom and attempting to spread Shi’a Islam in the nation where 99 percent of the population are Sunni Muslims.26
Since 2006, at least 13 Arab countries have either announced new plans to explore atomic energy or revived pre-existing nuclear programs (including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Turkey, and Syria) in response to Iran’s nuclear program. 27 Many Middle Eastern countries sought to strengthen their nuclear cooperation with other nations, such as the United States, Russia and France. Both Saudi Arabia and the UAE signed nuclear cooperation accords with the United States, and Russia and Egypt have laid the groundwork for Russia to join a tender for Egypt’s first civilian nuclear power station. Kuwait, Bahrain, Libya, Algeria, Morocco, and Jordan announced plans to build nuclear plants as well. Even Yemen, one of the poorest countries in the Arab world announced plans to purchase a nuclear reactor.
The Saudis have been quite explicit about the impact an Iranian bomb will have on their security. “If Iran develops a nuclear weapon,” an official close to Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal said in June 2011, “that will be unacceptable to us and we will have to follow suit.”27a In January 2012, Saudi King Abdullah signed an agreement with China for cooperation in the development and use of atomic energy for civilian purposes. 27b
Turkish President Abdullah Gül also declared that “Turkey will not accept a neighboring country possessing weapons not possessed by Turkey herself.”27c
European leaders also see Iran as a threat to their interests. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has said, for example, “Iran is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb. I say to the French, it’s unacceptable.”
Similarly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated, “I’m emphatically in favor of solving the problem through negotiations, but we also need to be ready to impose further sanctions if Iran does not give ground.”28
“Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon,” British Prime Minister David Cameron said. “It’s in the interests of everyone here and everyone in the world that we don’t get a nuclear arms race.”29
The international concern that has prompted a series of UN resolutions and ongoing condemnation of Iranian behavior has nothing to do with Israel. Most of the world understands that a nuclear Iran poses a direct threat to countries inside and outside the Middle East, raises the specter of nuclear terrorism, increases the prospects for regional instability, and promotes proliferation. Israel’s detractors, such as professors Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, portray Israel and the “Israeli lobby” as campaigning for military action against Iran. 30 In fact, Israel and its supporters have been outspoken in their desire to see tough measures implemented to stop Iran’s nuclear weapons program to avoid war. It is the Arab states that have aggressively lobbied the U.S. government to launch a military attack against Iran. The King of Saudi Arabia, for example, said the United States should put an end to its nuclear programs and “cut off the head of the snake.”31
1 SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.
2 “Proposed U.S. Arms Export Agreements From January 1, 2010 to December 31, 2010,” U.S. Department of Defense, (February 2011).
3 Carina Solmirano and Pieter D. Wezeman, “Military Spending and Arms Procurement in the Gulf States,” SIPRI, (October 2010).
5 Sam Perlo-Freeman, “Arms Transfers to the Middle East,” SIPRI, (July 2009).
6 “Military Expenditures,” World Bank, (accessed June 8, 2011).
7 “U.S.-Israel JPMG Follow-Up: Israeli Response To U.S. Proposed Defense Sales To Region,” (March 13, 2006).
8 Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Defense Security Assistance Agency Report; World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers.
9 “U.S.-Israel JPMG Follow-Up: Israeli Response To U.S. Proposed Defense Sales To Region,” (March 13, 2006).
10 Robert Siegel and Tom Gjelten, “CIA: North Korea Helping Syria Build Nuke Reactor,” NPR, (April 24, 2008).
11 Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah, (MA: Little Brown, and Co., 1991), p. 249.
12 Washington Post, (November 18, 2004).
13 Associated Press, (September 15, 2005).
14 USA Today, (August 6, 2006).
15 Associated Press, (February 27, 2007).
16 New York Times, (January 2, 2010); Washington Post, (February 11, 2010).
17 New York Times, (May 31, 2010).
18 “Does Iran have something in store?” Wall Street Journal, (August 8, 2006).
19 Iran Press Service, (December 14, 2001).
20 “AIP calls on Iran to respect int’l treaties relevant to Bahrain, UAE,” Kuwait News Agency, (March 22, 2009).
21 Giles Whittell, “Bahrain accuses Iran of nuclear weapons lie,” TimesOnline, (November 2, 2007).
22 Al-Hayat (London), May 16, 2008. “Arab League slams Iran’s ‘provocation,’ ” The Jerusalem Post, (March 22, 2009).
23 “Obama says new U.S. sanctions show international resolve in Iran issue," CNN, (July 1, 2010).
24 Giles Whittell, “Bahrain accuses Iran of nuclear weapons lie,” TimesOnline, (November 2, 2007).
25 “AIP calls on Iran to respect int’l treaties relevant to Bahrain, UAE,” Kuwait News Agency, (March 22, 2009); “Abu Musa Island,” GlobalSecurity.org, (October 15, 2008).
26 “Morocco severs relations with Iran,” aljazeera.net, (March 7, 2009).
27 Friedrich Steinhausler, “Infrastructure Security and Nuclear Power,” Strategic Insights, Volume VIII, Issue 5 (December 2009).
27a Jason Burke, “Riyadh will build nuclear weapons if Iran gets them, Saudi prince warns,” The Guardian, June 29, 2011.
27b Summer Said, “Saudi Arabia, China Sign Nuclear Cooperation Pact,” Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2012.
27c “Gül: Turkey will not accept Iran possessing nuclear weapons,” Today's Zaman, (January 3, 2013).
28 David Jackson, “Iran, Iraq top agendas for meetings with allies,” USA Today, (November 1, 2007).
29 “David Cameron threatens more Iran nuclear sanctions,” BBC, (February 23, 2011).
30 John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), p. 298.
31 “Saudi King Abdullah And Senior Princes On Saudi Policy Toward Iraq,” White House for OVP, Department For NEA/ARP AND S/I, (April 20, 2008).