Iran deal reigniting Israeli fears of over US arms sales to Gulf
Iran deal reigniting Israeli fears of over U.S. arms sales to
The lifting of arms embargo on Iran is sending the Middle East into a
frenzied conventional arms race, reigniting decades-old concerns in
Israel for its military edge over Arab states.
By Azriel Bermant and Yoel Guzansky | Aug. 30, 2015 | 2:45 PM
The confrontation between the Netanyahu government and the Obama administration
over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear agreement between Iran and
the world powers that was signed on July 14, brings to mind a row that took place 34
years earlier: the battle between the Begin government and the Reagan administration
over the sale of AWACS (airborne warning and control systems) to Saudi Arabia.
Back in 1981, the new Reagan administration decided to sell AWACS to Saudi
Arabia, which provoked great dismay in Israel. While Washington viewed the
AWACS deal as an opportunity to promote a strategic dialogue with moderate Arab
states and to provide them with means of self-defense as the Iran-Iraq War was in full
swing, Israel’s government was fiercely opposed to strengthening the offensive
capacity of any Arab state. During his visit to Washington in September 1981, thenPrime Minister Menachem Begin described the AWACS sale as a grave threat to
Israel’s security. AIPAC and other pro-Israel organizations lobbied intensively against
the sale much as they are doing today against the Iran deal, but the Reagan
administration got its way.
Yet, in recent years, Israel appears to have dropped its concerns over the flow of arms
into Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States. The reason for this is clear: the threat of a
nuclear Iran has become Israel’s number one concern, and has overshadowed any
anxieties it may have over the erosion of its qualitative military edge over Arab states.
In recent years, Israel has shown great flexibility regarding the sale of sophisticated
American weapons systems to the Gulf States, viewing it as a strengthening of the
regional coalition against Iran. Indeed, Israel itself has reportedly sold security
equipment to a number of the Gulf States, such as the United Arab Emirates.
However, all this may be about to change. The Middle East now finds itself in a
frenzied conventional arms race. Countries that had accumulated sophisticated
weapons systems over the years are now utilizing them in military operations beyond
their borders. Saudi Arabia’s war against the Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen
perfectly illustrates this. The regional arms race is likely to escalate, with serious
consequences for Israel’s security. There is growing concern in Washington over the
use of U.S. weaponry by Gulf States, with unease over the humanitarian impact of
Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, amid reports of extensive civilian casualties. Obama
administration officials are increasingly jittery about U.S. involvement in the Saudi-
led air war against rebel militias in Yemen, opening a potential rift between
Washington and its ally in Riyadh as Saudi airstrikes have hit what the United Nations
called "dozens of public buildings," including hospitals, schools, residential areas and
In the wake of the nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab
Emirates are seeking compensation from the United States in the shape of
sophisticated arms systems, such as advanced F-35 fighter jets. The United States is
reluctant to supply such weapons systems to the Gulf States, fearing that this could
compromise Israel’s military advantage. However, the Americans may be forced to
review this policy in order to keep its Gulf allies within the fold.
According to IHS Jane’s, a business intelligence company specializing in military and
national security topics, "Saudi Arabia and the UAE together imported $8.6 billion of
weapons systems in 2014, more than the imports of Western Europe combined,"
putting Saudi Arabia ahead of India as the world’s biggest importer of defense
equipment. With growing fears in the Gulf over Iran’s aspirations to regional
hegemony, such arms purchases are likely to rise dramatically.
In the coming years, with the lifting of the arms embargo against Iran, Tehran will
also be joining the regional arms race. Even if Western countries are hesitant about
selling arms to Iran, Russia and China will certainly step into the breach. Out of
concern for its regional prestige and influence, Saudi Arabia will need to find a quick
solution to Iran’s growing power, and it has the economic means at its disposal to do
The concerns that were raised by the Begin government back in the 1980s are likely
to resurface, as Israel becomes increasingly alarmed over the quantity and quality of
the arms being supplied to the Gulf States. Israel’s defense minister Moshe Ya’alon
and other senior Israeli officials are now raising their concerns with Washington over
the sale of advanced weapons systems to the Gulf States.
This is a sensitive matter that must be resolved in a quiet dialogue with the Obama
administration. Israel should not allow its genuine and understandable concerns over
the nuclear deal with Iran to result in an ill-fated intervention in U.S. politics – a
development that could seriously damage its strategic long-term interests.
Azriel Bermant is a Research Fellow in the field of Arms Control. Yoel Guzansky is a
Research Fellow specializing in the Gulf States at the Institute of National Security
Studies (INSS), Tel Aviv University.