Saudis on the march.

Photographer: Saleh al-Obeidi/AFP/Getty Image

Iran Deal Didn't Trigger the Middle East Arms Race

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Critics of the Obama administration's Iran nuclear deal warn that, among other faults, it is setting off a new Middle East arms race. In Qatar this week, Secretary of State John Kerry seemingly admitted as much, saying that Washington had "agreed to expedite certain arms sales that are needed and that have taken too long in the past."

And how: Just weeks after the pact was announced, Saudi Arabia signed up to buy 600 Patriot missiles from the U.S. at $5 billion, and it is expected to purchase 10 Sikorsky MH-60R naval helicopters. Qatar has inked a $17 billion contract for French-made Rafale fighter jets, and wants to buy Boeing F-15s. Kuwait recently bought 28 F-18 Super Hornets. The United Arab Emirates is expecting $200 million worth of General Atomics Predator drones next year. (Iran, soon to be relieved of sanctions, has a deal with Russia for a missile-defense system and is eyeing French and Russian fighters.)

But the arc of history shows that the checkbook bellicosity of the Gulf monarchies is hardly new. The hyper-arming of the Middle East actually dates to the mid-2000s, before the U.S. and its partners began negotiating in earnest with Tehran over  nuclear weapons.

What were the triggers? First, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which by the time of the first Saudi boom in arms spending in 2004, was not going well. That was also the year of the Khobar massacre, in which four terrorists inspired by al-Qaeda murdered 22 people and injured 25, mostly foreigners, at the central hub of the Saudi oil industry. Saudis were also on edge over the terrorist threat from Yemen  and had started building a 10-foot-high, 50-mile border wall (it was later abandoned).

Over the following four years, the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council outspent Iran 10 to 1 in arms imports. Saudi Arabia put $3 billion into Abrams tanks, Black Hawk helicopters and  light armored vehicles from the U.S. It also went on a European shopping spree: $4 billion in French helicopters, Eurofighter Typhoon aircraft, and a $2.8 billion deal to build a high-tech security fence on its border with Iraq. (Believe it or not, another finalist for that deal was the bin Laden family construction firm.)

More recently, the monarchies were spooked by the Arab Spring uprisings. Saudi Arabia's spending rose by 14 percent in 2013 from the previous year; at $67 billion, it exceeded that of France, Japan and the U.K. for the first time. Bahrain's government, which was so threatened by the revolutionary movement that Saudi tanks rolled in to quell demonstrations, upped military spending that year by 26 percent. 

Certainly Iran, nuclear-armed or not, poses a real threat to its Sunni neighbors. It has a large army -- 600,000 troops excluding reserves, 1,700 tanks, nearly 300 fighter and ground-attack planes, several hundred surface-to-air and ballistic missile launchers, and a bevy of small, fast boats that could wreak havoc in the narrow Persian Gulf.

In some respects, however, Iran is  more daunting on paper than on the battlefield. Arms expert Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies notes that while Iran has invested heavily in artillery and ballistic missiles, "the Iranian systems lack the lethality and accuracy to pose more than a terror threat to area targets" other than nearby Kuwait. And it is more than rivaled by the GCC, which even before the recent buildup had equivalent man- and seapower, twice as many modern planes and combat helicopters, and five times as many major weapons. Not to mention the backing of the world's lone military superpower, which usually keeps a U.S. aircraft carrier group in the neighborhood. 

The easing of sanctions under the nuclear deal will give Iran billions of new dollars in revenue, but that cash won't necessarily go to the military or to efforts to destabilize the region. "The lion's share of the funding that will be freed up with the sanctions relief will go to things economic," James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said last month at the Aspen Security Forum. "Funding proxies, funding the IRGC, the Quds Force and all that, well, they've been funded anyway, even with the sanctions regime. So I'm sure they'll get some money, but I don't think it'll be a huge windfall for them."

The Arab states -- which this week endorsed the nuclear deal as the "best option among other options" -- also have more immediate concerns than an Iran rebuilding after years of severe sanctions. Islamic State, civil war in Yemen, domestic terrorism, political unrest at home and a broader Sunni-Shiite conflict throughout the Middle East have all fed the booming of military budgets.

That said, the Gulf arms buildup has two evident drawbacks: First, the U.S. pledge to expedite arms sales takes away leverage Washington has to insist on political liberalization in the staid monarchies.  Second, it has the potential to threaten the "qualitative military edge" that the U.S. is obligated by law to give Israel over its numerically superior neighbors.

If maintaining Israel's edge remains policy, and it should, the U.S. will have to consider selling equipment that has previously been off the table. Dennis Ross, the Obama administration's former envoy to the region, has called on the U.S. to provide Israel with B-52 bombers, equipped with so-called bunker-buster bombs that could possibly destroy an Iranian underground nuclear facility.  That seems unlikely, but Congress in May did approve a $1.9 billion package that included 3,000 Hellfire anti-armor missiles and 14,000 tail kits to convert unguided bombs into GPS-guided missiles. The two nations are reportedly in talks to increase military aid to Israel by $1 billion per year.

There are plenty of things to dislike about the Iran nuclear deal:  the short time-frame of its restrictions, uncertainty over the effectiveness of inspections, the unexpected linkage to lifting the embargo on conventional weapons and the fact that the Iranians have been caught cheating so many times in the past. But the new Middle East arms race might be a net positive, and not just for U.S. military contractors. For decades, many Americans -- including the hawks slamming the Iran deal -- have called on the Saudis and other Arab allies to use their immense oil revenue to take on responsibility for their own security and a real leadership role in the neighborhood. Why decry it now that it's finally happening?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net