Weapons of mass consequence

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
3 August 2007

The United States' plan to provide its Arab allies and Israel with military aid, announced on 31 July 2007, is large-scale by any standards. It includes the provision of $20 billion-worth of precision-guided bombs, aircraft upgrades, new warships and other equipment to Saudi Arabia; $13 billion-worth of military supplies to Egypt; and smaller quantities of arms to other close allies such as Kuwait and Oman. The biggest transaction of all involves Israel, whose $30 billion-worth of contracts over the 2007-17 period represents a 30% increase over the last decade.

Paul Rogers is professor of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He has been writing a weekly column on global security on openDemocracy since 26 September 2001As with most arms agreements of this magnitude - the controversial al-Yamamah deal between Britain and Saudi Arabia, currently under US investigation - is a prime example - the political as much as the commercial dimensions are significant. In this case, Washington is seeking to bolster its interests in the middle east via a delicate balancing-act: assuaging Israeli concerns over the increased sales to the country's Arab neighbours with the scale of the bilateral deal with Tel Aviv, giving itself leverage to pressurise Riyadh over Iraq, and consolidating its alliances with friendly (or subordinate) Arab states.

An additional, and somewhat neglected, aspect of the US's strategic initiative deserves attention. This is the beneficial effects the comprehensive arms-sales deal will have on four key constituencies, in America itself and around the world.

Friends and rivals

The first major beneficiary is the Republican Party, as it prepares intensively for the epic presidential election of November 2008. The two aspects of the deal's largesse, commercial and political, are clearly linked.In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Paul Rogers's latest book is Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control (Routledge, July 2007). This is a collection of papers and essays written over the last twenty years, with two new essays on the current global predicament

The domestic arms industry is the most evident commercial beneficiary, but the security of the very lucrative contracts the deal represents will better be guaranteed if the White House remains under Republican control. Moreover, the favoured candidate will clearly need to maintain unstinting support for Israel while protecting and cultivating the Republicans' relationship with the Saudis.

The changing political nature of pro-Israel sentiment in the United States is a relevant consideration here (see Anatol Lieven, "Israel and the American antithesis" , 19 October 2004). The George W Bush administration is dependent less on the American Jewish community (which numbers approximately 6 million) than on the tens of millions of American evangelical Christians (many with Christian Zionist sympathies) who believe that Israel is a core part of God's plan as the "end days" approach (see "Christian Zionists and neocons: a heavenly marriage", 3 February 2005). The reconfiguring of the domestic politics of US support for Israel is greatly influenced by the tendency of this large group to vote both Republican and more assiduously than other citizens.

The second beneficiary is Russia. At present Russia's relations with Iran are in a trough over the fuelling of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, and in this sense the US project - aimed so obviously at circumscribing Iran's regional power - comes at a perfect time for Moscow. Indeed, it is reported that Iran has moved rapidly to respond to Washington's move by starting negotiations on a major purchase from a major Russian arms manufacturer, Sukhoi.

If the reports are confirmed - Russia has described them as a "pure lie"- Tehran may acquire as many as 250 advanced Su-30 fighter-bomber aircrafts. The Su-30 is a long-range aircraft with potential for anti-ship warfare, especially when equipped with some of the new cruise missiles. The Iranian air force could equip up to twelve squadrons in a $1 billion deal that would also involve the delivery of some tanker aircraft for aerial refuelling. The combination would transform Tehran's aerial capabilities, which are now confined by dependence mainly on 1960s- and 1970s-vintage aircraft.

The Russians, too, would be very happy with this outcome. They are beginning to redevelop their own aircraft industries after more than a decade in the doldrums, and big export orders are just what they need for economies of scale. The benign effects would not stop there: US arms companies could highlight Iran's new military resources to argue that the Saudis and their Arab neighbours need yet further upgrades.

The third beneficiary is China. China already has two strong connections with Iran, both of which could well be enhanced by the US deal. The first is that China is already supplying Iran with a range of missiles, including some particularly effective anti-ship missiles that can be launched from its coast. One of these made its way to Lebanon in 2006 and was used by a Hizbollah unit - quite possibly Iranian-trained - in one of the most damaging and (to the Israeli navy and armed forces generally) shocking attacks of the summer war: the disabling of a heavily armed Israeli Saar-5 missile corvette, the INS Ahi Hanit (see "Israel, Lebanon, and beyond: the danger of escalation" , 17 July 2006). China's business interests go far beyond Iran, but it will hardly miss an opportunity for some more arms sales there.

The second connection is that China sees Iran as one of its main sources of oil in the coming decades, and seeks to build on the major long-term supply deals the two countries have concluded since 2005. In the face of US support for Iran's potential enemies, the Chinese will be happy to consolidate their economic links with Tehran; an immediate option might be to re-establish these recent agreements on an arms-for-oil basis.

Osama's smile

The fourth beneficiary will be the al-Qaida movement, even though it has - American efforts to forge the link notwithstanding - few if any connections with Iran. For al-Qaida, though, the beauty of the American plan is that it links three of the movement's key opponents: the major elite regimes of the middle east (especially the House of Saud as the unacceptable Keeper of the Two Holy Places); Egypt with its persistent suppression of Islamist movements; and the United States.

The plan thus connects the principal elements of al-Qaida's "near enemy", which are buttressed in turn by the "far enemy" it also seeks to target, the United States. The arms deals consolidate the near enemy/far enemy connection in a way that will have substantial propaganda benefits. If the increased US support for Israel - the"Zionist entity" - is included, it is easy to see that the al-Qaida leadership will have greeted this week's news with quiet satisfaction.

The combination of Iraq, a Taliban revival in Afghanistan, instability in western Pakistan and new initiatives in Algeria and Morocco means that the al-Qaida movement has promising territory to cultivate. The Bush administration may be unable to see it, though its allies and those in the middle east itself may be clearer-eyed: this series of arms deals linking some of the United States's key allies is an unexpected bonus to the country's inveterate adversary.


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