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Myths & Facts Online - The Arms Balance

“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.”
“The Arab states have had to keep pace with an Israeli-led arms race.”
“Israel is militarily superior to its neighbors in every area and has maintained a qualitative edge over its enemies.”
“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.”
“Israel refuses to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to conceal its nuclear arsenal, and therefore threatens its neighbors.”
“Arms control in the Middle East is impossible so long as Israel refuses to give up its nuclear weapons.”
“Egypt is no longer a military threat since signing a peace treaty with Israel.”
“Iran has no ambition to become a nuclear power and poses no threat to Israel or the United States.”


“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.1

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 maintained a its qualitative edge over its enemies 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 these nations, individually. 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. In 2004, Saudi Arabia alone spent $21.6 billion (and the Bush Administration notified Congress in 2005 of its intention to sell the Saudis another $2 billion), while Iran spent more than $17 billion. Between 2001 and 2004, Egypt purchased $6.5 billion worth of arms (by comparison, Israel spent $4.4 billion). In 2005, Syria renewed its military purchases from Russia, obtaining SA-18 antiaircraft missiles and the promise of additional weapons. Israel allocates about $9 billion for defense annually, while Iran and the Arab states, many of which are in a state of war with Israel, spend more than $40 billion a year.2 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 2005, for example, the United Arab Emirates took delivery of F-16 fighters, which were newer and more advanced that those sold to Israel. This was the first sale of the planes to a non-NATO country.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 about 9 percent of its GDP 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.


“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 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.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 to Riyadh over the years might have fallen into Saddam’s hands.

The Saudis’ small armed forces cannot withstand an assault by a force three to four times its size. 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.

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’ support for terrorists and the possibility that the monarchy could be overthrown by a more hostile regime.

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.

“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 Dershowitz5


“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. Syria, yet another signatory, recently began a clandestine nuclear program that was destroyed by Israel.

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 use nuclear weapons in 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 thannations 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.

Egypt was the third largest purchaser of arms from 2001-2004, trailing only China and India. 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 F-15 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. Egypt’s military also now has Abrams tanks, F-16 fighter planes and Apache attack helicopters.

These arms transfers 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 and 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 now in his late 70s 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 more than 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 the United States and Israel, and Iran is now 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 ten years, and possibly much sooner if its current program is not stopped. Today, even European leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have expressed a determination to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear capability because they recognize their own countries would be within range of Iranian missiles and their national interests in the region endangered.

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. In February 2003, Iranian President Mohammad Khatami announced the discovery ofuranium 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. 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. In July 2004, Iran broke 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 on 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.12

Secretary of State Colin Powell said United States intelligence indicated Iran is trying to fit missiles to carry nuclear weapons, which he intimated 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.13

In February 2005, Ali Agha Mohammadi, spokesman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Iran will never scrap its nuclear program, and talks with the Europeans are aimed at protecting the country’s nuclear achievements, not negotiating an end to them.

In May 2005 2005, Iran confirmed that it had converted 37 tons of uranium into gas, its first acknowledgment of advances made in the production process for enriched uranium. This means Tehran is in a position to start enriching uranium quickly if negotiations with the Europeans over the future of its nuclear program fail.14

On September 2, 2005, the IAEA reported that Iran had produced about seven tons of the gas it needs for uranium enrichment since it restarted the process the previous month. A former UN nuclear inspector said that would be enough for an atomic weapon. In unusually strong language, an IAEA report also said questions remain about key aspects of Iran’s 18 years of clandestine nuclear activity and that it still was unable “to conclude that there are no undeclared nuclear materials or activities in Iran.”15

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.”16

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.”17

On July 31, 2006, the UN 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 will expand - not suspend - uranium enrichment activities. “We will expand nuclear activities where required. It includes all nuclear technology including the string of centrifuges,” Larijani said, referring to the centrifuges Iran uses to enrich uranium.18

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 requires 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.” The Council requested a report within 60 days from the Director General of IAEA on whether Iran had complied with the resoluiton.

In February 2007, an internal European Union document said there was no way to prevent Iran from enriching enough weapons-grade uranium to produce a bomb and that the Iranian program had been slowed by technical limitations rather than diplomatic pressure. The Financial Times quoted the document as saying: “At some stage we must expect that Iran will acquire the capacity to enrich uranium on the scale required for a weapons program” and that “the problems with Iran will not be resolved through economic sanctions alone.”19

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. The organization also reported that Teheran continued construction of a heavy water reactor and related facilities that — along with enrichment — could help it develop nuclear arms. A few days later Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki reiterated that Iran would never suspend uranium enrichment.20

On March 8, 2007, the IAEA announced the suspension of nearly two dozen nuclear technical aid programs to Iran as part of UN sanctions imposed because the country's nuclear defiance. Perhaps even more important was the decision two weeks later by Russia to withhold nuclear fuel for the Bushehr power plant unless Iran suspends its uranium enrichment.

In April 2007, Ahmadinejad announced that the Natanz facility had begun “industrial-scale” production of nuclear fuel. Iran claimed to be injecting uranium gas into a new array of 3,000 centrifuges.21 IAEA inspectors later reported that Iran appeared to have solved most of its technological problems and was starting to enrich uranium on a far larger scale than before. In August, the IAEA reported Iran was expanding its nuclear program in defiance of the UN. The agency said Iran was operating nearly 2,000 centrifuges at Natanz, an increase of several hundred machines from three months earlier.22

In June 2007, Iran’s interior minister said Iran had produced 100 kilograms (220 pounds) of enriched uranium. Experts say that about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of enriched uranium would be needed for one bomb.23

A lot of attention has focused on 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 his 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, its principal strategic interest is regional domination, and the countries that are most concerned are its immediate Arab neighbors. Iran wants to control the oil industry, to influence policy in the Middle East, and to become a major player in global politics. Again, 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 offset most or all of 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.


1Mitchell Bard, The Water’s Edge And Beyond, (NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1991), p. 194-209.
2Aluf Benn, “Israel worried about possible new Russia-Syria arms deals,” Haaretz, (October 26, 2005); Information from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).
3Arieh O’Sullivan, “US Sells world’s best F-16s to UAE,” Jerusalem Post, (May 5, 2005).
4Arms Control and Disarmament Agency; Defense Security Assistance Agency Report; World Military Expenditures and Arms Transfers.
5Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah, (MA: Little Brown, and Co., 1991), p. 249.
6Josef Joffe, “A World Without Israel,” Foreign Policy, (January/February 2005), pp. 36-42.
7Associated Press, (June 12, 2004).
8Aluf Benn, “Israel worried about possible new Russia-Syria arms deals,” Haaretz, (October 26, 2005); Center for Strategic and International Studies, United Nations (UN) Institute for Disarmament Research.
9Jerusalem Post, (December 21, 2003).
10Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, (Langley, VA: CIA, 2004).
11Associated Press, (February 11, 2003).
12Telegraph, (July 27, 2004); Associated Press, (October 6, 2004).
13Washington Post, (November 18, 2004).
14Associated Press, (May 9, 2005).
15Chicago Tribune, (September 3, 2005).
16Associated Press, (September 15 & 20, 2005).
17Maariv, (July 27, 2004).
18Associated Press, (August 6, 2006).
19Jerusalem Post, (February 13, 2007).
20Associated Press, (February 27, 2007).
21Associated Press, (April 12, 2007).
22New York Times, May 15 and August 30, 2007).
23Associated Press, (June 22, 2007).

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