For years, US leaders have attempted to muffle opposition to overseas arms sales by arguing that transfers of conventional, non-nuclear munitions reduce the risk of nuclear war. If we provide our allies with adequate conventional defenses, the argument goes, they will not be motivated to acquire nuclear defenses. But conventional arms sales to the Middle East have not reduced the risk of nuclear war. In fact, the opposite is true: Cascading arms sales to the region are making nuclear war more, not less likely.

No one can predict the opening moves of a global war, of course, but most experts agree that a nuclear shootout will arise from a conventional conflagration that blazes out of control. In the most plausible scenarios, this could occur when a small nuclear power — say Israel or Pakistan — uses its atomic munitions to prevent an enemy onslaught, or when the superpowers clash head on while trying to rescue their respective allies and clients. Nowhere are these conditions more likely to prevail than in the Middle East, and nowhere else have arms sales contributed more to the emergence of this perilous situation.

Conventional arms sales enhance the risk of nuclear war in three interconnected ways:

  • First, by increasing the explosive intensity of non-nuclear wars, thereby increasing the risk that a participant in such a conflict will resort to nuclear strikes to prevent its defeat by the conventional forces of an adversary. The quantities of arms sold to the Middle East in recent years are nothing short of staggering. Between 1973 and 1980, according to the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, the United States, Soviet Union and Western Europe provided Middle Eastern countries with 14,530 tanks and self-propelled cannons, 21,680 armored troop carriers, 3,370 supersonic combat aircraft, 26,020 surface-to-air missiles and equally large quantities of other weapons. This booty has reportedly endowed Israel and its Arab rivals with the equivalent in conventional strength to Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces in Eastern Europe. Such statistics do not tell the whole story: Recent sales to the Middle East have been marked as much by the sophistication of the weapons supplied as by their quantity. No longer are the major powers providing only their obsolete hand-me-downs. They are selling their most advanced and powerful weapons. These deliveries have transformed the combat environment in the Middle East into a high-risk battlefield of the sort we would expect in another European war. On such a battlefield, the Pentagon noted in its “guidance statement” for fiscal 1984, conventional combat “will be of much greater accuracy (and) rates of fire” than anything seen before. It is in precisely this sort of environment, most experts agree, that a nuclear war is most likely to erupt.
  • Second, conventional arms transfers facilitate the nuclear weapons programs of local powers. At present, two Middle Eastern countries — Israel and Pakistan — are believed to possess nuclear weapons or have the capacity to manufacture them. Several others, including Iraq, are thought to have long-range plans for such an endeavor. Conventional arms transfers play an important accessory role by providing aspiring nuclear powers with the capacity to deliver nuclear munitions deep into enemy territory. Many of the aircraft and missiles sold to Middle Eastern countries in recent years can be converted for nuclear weapons delivery, as can 8-inch and 155-mm howitzers of the type used by Israel in shelling Beirut. On a political level, conventional arms transfers can also provide tacit approval for our allies’ nuclear weapons program. In recognition of the great danger posed by nuclear proliferation, US law (specifically, the Symington Amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act) requires the president to suspend arms deliveries to any nation suspected of acquiring nuclear-enrichment technology without adhering to inspection requirements and safeguards established by the International Atomic Energy Agency. This provision can be overlooked, however, if the president determines that US security is at stake. By choosing this option, as President Reagan had done in the case of Pakistan, or by ignoring the Symington Amendment altogether, as Washington has consistently done in the case of Israel, the US government is essentially telling these countries that it has no real objection to their nuclear weapons programs.
  • Finally, conventional arms transfers bind the fate of the recipient to that of the supplier, thereby increasing the risk of superpower involvement in a Middle Eastern war. The big powers inevitably acquire a particular interest in the survival of regimes to which they have sold large quantities of their most advanced weapons. Should any of these countries face defeat in a local war, the credibility of their supplier is inevitably threatened, thus producing pressures to intervene. These pressures are bound to increase, moreover, if there is any risk that the supplier’s military secrets will fall into the hands of an enemy. Indeed, many US lawmakers voted against the AWACS sale to Saudi Arabia precisely out of this fear. In the Middle East, both superpowers have established close arms-supply relationships with potential belligerents. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, both the United States and the Soviet Union transported arms directly to their allies in the war zone, narrowly averting a head-on collision. Next time, we may not be so lucky. Nothing is more likely to trigger a nuclear holocaust than a US-Soviet clash arising out of their mutual efforts to assist allies in a Middle Eastern war.

Clearly, each of these three factors by themselves makes a nuclear war more likely; together, they make one a near certainty. Despite this, neither the United States nor the Soviet Union appear to have any intention of curtailing their arms deliveries to the region. Indeed, the fighting in Lebanon is likely to produce a renewed appetite for sophisticated arms by all parties concerned, pushing the regional arms race to even more precarious levels.

All this suggests that the issues of conventional arms transfers and nuclear proliferation cannot be viewed as separate problems requiring separate solutions. Both conventional and nuclear exports present a common danger — the explosive growth in the world’s stockpile of war-making capabilities — and only a unified effort toward multilateral arms control offers any hope in diminishing this threat.

In recognition of this imperative, representatives of the two superpowers met on several occasions in 1977 and 1978 to negotiate mutual restrictions on arms exports. These so-called CAT (conventional arms transfers) talks made only limited progress before the Afghanistan crisis forced their suspension. They nevertheless demonstrated that Washington and Moscow can work together in developing innovative new approaches to solving this seemingly intractable problem. Among the measures reportedly considered by the CAT negotiators were a ban on the introduction of new high-tech weapons into Third World areas, limits on the sale of nuclear-capable systems, and an embargo on especially odious weapons like napalm, “cluster” bombs, and incendiary devices. The growing risk of a Middle Eastern conflagration suggests an urgent need to reconvene the CAT talks. Despite the suspicions that divide them, both superpowers have a vested interest in preventing a nuclear holocaust — and thus in jointly curtailing their conventional arms transfers to the Middle East.

How to cite this article:

Michael Klare "Conventional Arms Sales," Middle East Report 112 (February 1983).

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