US Foreign Policy

Report of the Study Group on Multilateral Arms Transfer Guidelines for the Middle East

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For the Bush administration, the aftermath of the Gulf War and the demise of the Soviet Union and its empire have given new currency to enduring U.S. objectives: the creation of a stable Middle East and the pursuit of a durable regional peace. At present, the current military balance in the region is generally conducive to stability and the well-being of the most responsible states in the region. Yet the defeat of Iraq by the coalition forces is no cause for complacency. Assisted by the unregulated flow of arms into the region by outside supplier states, Iran and Syria are seeking to build up their forces at a substantial rate; Iraq under Saddam Hussein represents a continuing threat.

Left unchecked, unrestrained arms transfers could have the effect of dramatically altering the balance of power in the region in a way that could upset regional stability and increase the possibility of yet another Middle Eastern war. As a result, a multilateral arms transfer guidelines regime agreed to by the key arms-exporting states is in the interest of both regional stability and the United States’ friends in the Middle East. Presi­ dent George Bush, speaking before a joint session of Congress on March 6, 1991, explicitly acknowledged this and observed: “It would be tragic if the nations of the Middle East and the Persian Gulf were now, in the wake of the war, to embark on a new arms race.” Thus, at this time, establishing international agreement on concrete multilateral arms transfer guidelines for the Middle East makes sense, despite all of the difficulties in their realization.

Yet almost as soon as President Bush said it was necessary to reduce the arms flow to a region his administration had declared “already over­ militarized,” the United States announced its intention to renew arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, prompting one commentator in Foreign Affairs to write: “The tentativeness of the arms control proposals unveiled for the region last May are more suggestive of past failures than future promise.”1 If this is the case, a potentially unique and even historic opportunity to forge an arrangement in the Middle East that ends the vicious cycle of wars and ever-increasing expenditures on arms may be squandered. Moreover, there is a sense of urgency for multilateral action: it is unclear how long this current balance of power favorable to regional stability will last.

A careful analysis of the risks and benefits of establishing multi­ lateral guidelines for arms transfers to the region and the difficulty of implementing such guidelines paints a more complex picture than is sometimes suggested by supporters of arms control. Arms transfers to the Middle East are not the cause of regional problems, which themselves are the product of deep-seated ethnic, religious, and sectarian rivalries; instead, the acquisition of arms are the result of deep-seated and unresolved tensions between Israel and the Arab world and between and within Arab states themselves. Resolution of these varied and hostile relationships will only come about through concerted diplomatic measures and negotiated peace agreements. Nonetheless, the Study Group on Multilateral Arms Transfer Guidelines for the Middle East has concluded that the establishment of multilateral arms transfer guidelines for the Middle East can play an important role in fostering greater stability in the region, thereby strengthening the prospects for peace in the Middle East. Consequently, the group believes that the establishment of concrete, multilateral guidelines should be accorded higher priority and sustained attention by the U.S. government.

But what kinds of guidelines-qualitatively  and  quantitatively­ are most likely tofurther the interests of the United States, the world’s other major arms suppliers, and the countries in the region? What are the alternatives to such guidelines, and what would be their impact? What participants are necessary to make the implementation of multilateral guidelines successful, and how might they be induced to take part in a regime? And, finally, how best can the United States exercise leadership in establishing meaningful multilateral arms transfer guidelines for the Middle East?

Building upon President Bush’s May 1991 arms control initiative, which called for “supplier guidelines for conventional arms exports” to the Middle East, the world’s five major arms suppliers are currently discussing general guidelines to govern the flow of conventional arms into the region. Progress has been made, notably in the first-ever agreement among the Great Power arms suppliers to exercise, in principle, arms transfer restraint. The next and significantly harder step is to provide greater specificity to the agreed upon, general guidelines. It is with this objective, of helping the major arms suppliers to agree on concrete, multilateral arms transfer guidelines for the Middle East, that this study group was convened.

In its work the group has been acutely aware of the military, political, and economic complexities associated with establishing and implementing multilateral arms transfer guidelines. The group recognizes that guidelines are a blunt instrument. Guidelines do not discriminate between countries in the region, a factor that on its face is considered a significant drawback by those who rightly worry that the United States’ allies and friends might comply strictly with guidelines, while irresponsible states might evade them-with little penalty.

The group’s approach takes into account this difficulty. The guidelines proposed here are based on the following assumptions: First, no combination of Middle East nations hostile to Israel should be allowed to gain military power such that they pose a direct threat to Israel’s survival. Second, Iraq, Iran, and Syria should not be allowed to obtain sufficient military power to establish hegemony over the Persian Gulf. Third, Iraq, Iran, and Syria should not be allowed to gain military power such that any one or combination of the three can threaten to destabilize Turkey to the north or any of the subregions of the Middle East as a whole.

In the collective judgment of the group these goals will be fostered by the recommendations contained in this report. First, concrete, multi­ lateral guidelines implemented jointly by the world’s five major arms suppliers will reinforce the regional stability that exists at this time. Second, no major arms supplier can be held accountable to the proposed guidelines if another of their number breaks ranks in a way that undermines the overall purposes of the guidelines regime. If a major arms supplier chooses to act in ways that foster instability in the region, other suppliers can be expected to take steps to reinforce regional stability. It would be far better for peace and stability in the Middle East, however, if all of the world’s major arms suppliers adhered to agreed upon arms transfer guidelines.

The group has primarily focused on the five major arms suppliers­ the United States, Russia, France, the United Kingdom, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC)-because this first tier of countries accounts for 90 percent of all arms flowing into the Middle East. Moreover, the arms of the Big Five nations are qualitatively more advanced than those of the second-tier supplier states, as was vividly demonstrated in the Gulf War. In varying degrees the technological sophistication and the numbers of arms the second-tier suppliers produce lag significantly behind those of the Big Five. Although the potential impact of second-tier suppliers should in no way be minimized, the fact remains that they are unable to alter the qualitative or quantitative military balance in the region in the near term in any way that closely approximates the capacity of the Big Five. If, however, the world’s five major arms suppliers can successfully agree to an arms transfer guidelines regime, this could provide a powerful foundation from which to pressure second-tier suppliers to cooperate.

For this reason, the group notes with concern that the PRC, in particular, is currently standing in the way of a Big Five consensus on even modest steps toward a guidelines regime, thereby making the achievement of more dramatic initiatives that much more remote. It is imperative that the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, and France make a con­ certed effort to bring about the full participation of the PRC in any guidelines regime. France itself has demonstrated lukewarm enthusiasm for arms transfer restraint, and its support must be heightened if a multi­ lateral regime is to be effectively implemented. The group believes that the full cooperation of other members of the Big Five could be enhanced by U.S. arms transfer restraint.

The study group is acutely mindful that its recommendations must be capable of garnering bipartisan support at home, must not be conceived in a political vacuum, must build upon the common interests of the supplier states, and must be formulated and carried out multilaterally. The group does not rule out unilateral, limited gestures by the United States, but this is no substitute for compliance by the Big Five suppliers. Reliance on unilateral action, even if just to set an example, could prove self-defeating if it undermines regional stability. Moreover, it is essential that supplier guidelines be supported by the recipient nations in the Middle East-if not at the outset, then soon thereafter. Consequently, it is desirable that the states of the Middle East come to view any supplier guidelines as being in their respective national interests. It is also important that there be not only effective means of verification to monitor compliance but also a reliable expectation of concerted action to address imbalances occurring as a result of a major exporter’s breaking ranks.

The group does not propose an immediate, multilateral halt of arms transfers to the Middle East. As a practical matter, it acknowledges that some arms must continue to be transferred into the region for the foresee­ able future, consistent with regional security and enhanced stability in the Middle East. The group, however, does favor a reduction in the flow of conventional and unconventional arms to the region. The issue is not one of merely limiting the introduction of certain new systems into the Middle East. To begin with, some new systems, in limited quantities, may find their way into the region even under the soundest guidelines; however, it is critically important that the floodgates are not wide open, allowing the unbridled introduction of arms that could alter the relatively stable balance of power now existing in the region. In addition, the group’s recommen­ dations seek to ensure that arms transfers are governed by strategic logic geared toward promoting a more stable and peaceful Middle East. This, not the generation of hard currency, warm production lines, or job security, must be the driving force. Furthermore, the group seeks to shift the burden of proof for certain arms sales to their proponents, away from their critics, as the group believes that only in this way can the dynamic behind unbridled, multilateral arms transfers be eventually curtailed.

The group notes that it is almost impossible to constrain new-and destabilizing-transfers to potential enemies by other supplier states without also constraining some new transfers to U.S. friends and allies in the region. Thus, the effort needs to be multilateral, both for exporters and importers. The sine qua non of the group’s recommendations is that they are conditional and verifiable. They can work only if the Big Five agree to join and if, ultimately, the second-tier suppliers and the recipient nations are supportive as well. The group recognizes that if one or more members of the Big Five violates agreed upon guidelines, then the United States will ultimately have to employ arms transfers consistent with U.S. security interests and regional stability.

The group believes that the recommendations and observations in this report can assist the U.S. government in its efforts to reduce regional instability in the Middle East, to diminish the chance of yet another costly war, to strengthen regional security, to provide incentives for Middle Eastern states to be more amenable to lower levels of arms, and to focus their respective resources more on economic and social needs and less on military expenditures. Further, the group hopes that this report will stimu­ late greater attention to the components of a successful arms transfer restraint policy in other exporting states. Although all members of the study group agree with the principal themes contained in this report, group membership does not necessarily imply a member’s endorsement of all of the report’s specific proposals and recommendations.

This report begins with a historical assessment of previous arms transfer restraint efforts in the Middle East. It then analyzes the problems arising out of continued arms transfers, including their impact on the nature of potential conflict in the region. A discussion follows of the viability of establishing effective compliance with multilateral arms transfer guidelines and the factors that make the institutionalization of such guidelines not just desirable, but doable. Finally, the report sets forth the group’s recommen­ dations for multilateral arms transfer guidelines for the Middle East.

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