Arms and Armaments in the Middle East

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Arms supply, imports, and control in the countries that comprise the modern Middle East.

The ArabIsraeli conflict has generated the most significant arms race in the Middle East, but rivalries involving Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Turkey also have contributed heavily to regional instability. Attempts to control the supply of arms have been of limited duration and success.

During the ArabIsrael War in 1948, Israel bought arms from Czechoslovakia, a Soviet client state. The arms were obsolete, but with them Israel defeated several Arab states equipped with British and French arms. That war also brought the first attempts at arms control in the region. Britain and the United States withheld arms from the combatants, but the United Nations embargo, imposed in May 1948, prevented neither smuggling nor clandestine purchases.

In May 1950 the United States, Britain, and France announced the Tripartite Declaration and in June 1950 created the Near East Arms Coordinating Committee (NEACC), intending to regulate the sale of arms to the region. In fact, the United States left the Middle East arms markets to its allies, supplying few arms even to Iraq, with which in 1954 it signed a military aid agreement. Thus, in mid-1955, nearly all arms in the region were of Western European origin.

In 1955 the Soviet Union radically altered the Middle East balance with a deal that provided Egypt (through Czechoslovakia) with modern arms, including MiG-15 jets, worth $250 million. France's conflict with Egypt over its aid to the rebels in Algeria and the nationalization of the Suez Canal were the impetus for its sale in 1956 of seventy-two Mystère jets and other arms to Israel. France became Israel's main supplier until 1968, when it cited Israeli preemption in the June 1967 ArabIsrael War as reason for an embargo.

After the 1956 SuezSinai crisis, the Soviet Union accelerated supply to its regional clients. From 1956 to 1967, the Soviet Union equipped Egypt with nearly 1,000 tanks and 360 jets, transferred 400 tanks and 125 jets to Iraq, and sold Syria 350 tanks and 125 jets. In 1964 the United States sold tanks to Jordan and in 1966 F-104 jets in order to preclude Soviet penetration. In 1966 the United States sold Israel A-4 Skyhawk jets, marking the first time it released combat aircraft to that country. Following the 1967 ArabIsrael War and during the 19691970 War of Attrition and the 1973 ArabIsrael War, the Soviet Union rearmed the Arab states, while the United States became Israel's principal supplier. The 1979 IsraeliEgyptian peace treaty was another turning point in arms supply to the region, after which the United States increased military aid to both Israel and Egypt. Israel continues to receive $1.8 billion annually in U.S. military assistance, and U.S. military aid to Egypt exceeds $1.3 billion. The United States sells Israel F-15I and F-16 multi-role jets; Egypt has purchased the latter model.

By the mid-1970s U.S. sales to Saudi Arabia, and Soviet transfers to Iraq and Syria, reached proportions similar to those of the Arab-Israeli context. Moreover, from 1977 to 1980, Iran purchased $3.4 billion in military equipment, mostly from the United States. In 1981, the United States sold Saudi Arabia an Airborne Warning and Command System (AWACS). Saudi expenditures on arms rose steadily and from 1987 to 1997 totaled $262 billion. Saudi Arabia's purchases have included U.S. M-1A2 Abrams tanks, F-15 jets, and Patriot surface-to-air missiles. Turkey's procurement has been more gradual but from 1981 to 1999 reached $11.55 billion worth of U.S. arms. The armaments levels of several states in the Middle East are comparable to those of the leading powers of Western Europe. Israel maintains some 1,300 high-quality main battle tanks and 350 high-quality jet aircraft. Syria has 1,600 first-line (T-72) tanks, purchased mainly from the Soviet Union and (after 1991) Russia, and 280 combat jets. Egypt's arsenal includes some 500 top-quality tanks of U.S. manufacture and 200 jets. Saudi Arabia has 200 such tanks and 170 jets. Turkey fields medium-quality armor but maintains 225 high-quality jet aircraft.

Israel is the only state in the region with a sophisticated indigenous arms industry, producing the Merkava tank and Arrow surface-to-air missile. Israel is regarded as a nuclear power, but several other states in the Middle East possess non-conventional arms. Iraq has attempted to acquire a nuclear capability, and Libya and Syria have chemical weapons. All of the states of the region claim to support a Middle East Nuclear Weapons Free Zone, yet no agreements control the flow of arms to the Middle East.

see also military in the middle east.


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Glassman, Jon D. Arms for the Arabs: The Soviet Union and War in the Middle East. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975.

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Zach Levey

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Arms and Armaments in the Middle East

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