US Withdrawal from JCPOA will not Stop Regional Arms Race

The Israeli strikes throughout Syria in response to the rocket salvo launched into the Golan Heights and the withdrawal from the JCPOA by the US President have unveiled a small portion of the arms race that has been underway in the last few months throughout the Middle East. Amir Rapaport's weekly column attempts to sort out the regional arsenals

IAF fighter jets (Photo: IDF)

The events of the last week alone – President Trump's speech regarding the withdrawal of the United States from the JCPOA, the Iranian rockets launched at the Golan Heights and the extensive strikes Israel staged throughout Syria against Iranian objectives in response – have unveiled only a small portion of the broad regional picture: an unprecedented arms race.

In his speech, President Trump referred to the fact that the Iranian nuclear project, along with the effort to develop long-range missile systems and intensive involvement in terrorism, have already led the other countries of the region to massively arm themselves. President Trump failed to specify how massive that arming process actually is. The astounding scope of that process is presented in a comprehensive study by Shaul Shai, Oded Brosh, and Yair Freymovich, three highly-respected, seasoned intelligence professionals and analysts. The study has been published by the Institute for Policy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) Herzliya in anticipation of the Herzliya Conference.

At the time of the conference, the tension between Israel and Iran has reached yet another peak this week (a current estimate in anticipation of the coming weekend: both parties are not interested in escalating into an all-out war, but such a scenario might definitely develop owing to a contradiction between the parties' "Red Lines" or an erroneous estimate by one of the parties regarding the enemy's true intentions). Accordingly, Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Moscow on Wednesday was almost as important as President Trump's speech (the Russians do not really care about Israel inflicting damage on Iran, but Putin closely and uncompromisingly defends Moscow's interests, and for that reason, the dialog with him is critically important).

Everyone is Buying

Back to the arms race: the factor that pushed this race to unprecedented proportions in Middle East history was, first and foremost, the Iranian nuclear project. As early as the outset of the present decade, Iran's neighbors estimated that the Shi'ite country was determined to obtain nuclear weapons, but after the sanctions that had been imposed on Iran were lifted pursuant to the agreement (JCPOA) of 2015, nearly all restraints were removed.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, from which the US has withdrawn earlier this week, sets forth that most of the restrictions on the sale of arms to the Ayatollah regime would be lifted as of 2020, but the transfer of billions of dollars into Iran's empty purse has already started the procurement drive, in practical terms.

The first country to assault the Iranian market was Russia, which delivered state-of-the-art S-300 air-defense batteries to the Iranians (that deal had been frozen owing to the sanctions) and still intends to supply Sukhoi-35 fighters and various sea, air and land systems, including cruise missiles and ballistic missiles (the missile embargo is to be lifted, according to the agreement, in 2023, but Iran also possesses the ability to independently manufacture missiles capable of reaching outer space). The scope of the procurement deals between Russia and Iran will amount to $10 billion.

Just as it does for Iran, it was no surprise to discover that Russia is also stocking up the weapon silos of its old-new puppet country, Syria (for example, with S-300 and SA-17 air-defense systems, Yakhont shore-to-sea missiles and Metis and Kornet antitank missiles), but the procurement lists of other countries are the ones causing the most astonishment. Most of these countries belong to the Sunni Muslim axis, which regards Shi'ite Iran as an enemy just as Israel does, and in fact even more.

One of the most surprising countries taking place in the regional arms race is Egypt, which shares many interests – as well as warm security relations – with Israel. The recent reports regarding the severe economic situation in Egypt notwithstanding, apparently el-Sisi's regime invests billions in a military build-up. Egypt, the addressee of a number of "Yellow Cards" from the US over such issues as human rights, drew the lessons and decided to develop weapon systems independently while at the same time diversifying its procurement sources. Accordingly, Egypt is to take delivery of not less than 180 latest-generation US-made F-16 fighters, along with 50 Russian-made MiG-29 fighters (to be delivered by 2020), 24 French-made Rafale fighters and 46 Russian-made Ka-50 Kamov attack helicopters.

The Egyptians encountered difficulties in their attempts to purchase armed unmanned airborne platforms from the US, so they acquired similar platforms from China. The Egyptians are also investing a fortune in their land army and in anti-aircraft systems, and mainly in systems for the naval theater. Among other things, this includes the procurement of two aircraft carriers and corvettes from France as well as four submarines from Germany – an issue referred to repeatedly in the context of the investigation into the motives for the Israeli submarine deal (the submarines were acquired from the same German shipyard).

Is the massive Egyptian arming effort aimed only at the Iranian enemy? The new study shows that the recent Egyptian training exercises and the building of an extensive road network in the Sinai are also intended for a scenario of a future war against Israel.

Saudi Arabia

Without a doubt, the country making the most substantial arming effort is Saudi Arabia (which also leads a coalition of 10 Sunni countries against the Iran-supported Shi'ite forces in Yemen). This year, Saudi Arabia's defense budget was no less than $56 billion! (In comparison, Israel has a defense budget amounting to a similar figure – but in ILS). Saudi Arabia's budget is the world's fourth largest after those of the US, Russia, and China. The kingdom is the world's second-largest importer of arms, after India.

With these staggering amounts, no wonder the procurement list seems endless. The Saudis also endeavor to establish an infrastructure for the manufacture of aircraft and weapon systems on their own soil, in cooperation with such notable global corporations as the American Lockheed Martin, the British BAE, or the Ukrainian aircraft manufacturer Antonov. Nearly none of this procurement pertains to the "Trump Deal" which, according to recent reports, is to amount to not less than $350 billion over the coming decade, of which $110 billion will account for procurement of arms from the US within the coming years (the deal has been under discussion since 2017).

Qatar & the UAE

One particular surprise in the context of the regional arms race is another neighbor of Iran's – the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the world's third-largest importer of arms in the past two years.

The UAE has been acquiring cutting-edge weapon systems from the US, Russia, the UK, China, South Africa and Finland, while at the same time developing a local arms industry. The never-ending petrodollars have also been financing procurement on the part of Qatar to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. This emirate has completely unfastened the purse strings, particularly after the crisis it faced vis-à-vis Egypt and their neighbors about a year ago. Sharing the Qatari celebration are France (that recently sold the Qataris 12 Rafale fighters), the UK, Italy (7 frigates), Germany (mainly tanks), Turkey, China and even Pakistan.

The Qataris do not possess the ability to actually operate those massive amounts of arms, but they keep buying nevertheless.

At the same time as the massive procurement of arms, the countries of the region also purchase satellite imagery services, which are becoming increasingly less expensive and more readily available, and the entire Middle East is becoming "transparent" – including the territory of Israel.

Qualitative Advantage?

The Middle East is not the only region in the world where an arms race is currently in progress. Last week, for example, the SIBAT (Defense Exports & Defense Cooperation) Division of the Israel Ministry of Defense announced that Israel broke the previous defense export records, having crossed the $9 billion bar through sales in 2017, largely owing to the tensions in Asia. For obvious reasons, Israel cannot join the celebration of arms sales to the countries of the Persian Gulf, at least not openly, but the arms race in our region has a decisive effect on our strategic situation.

Israel's defense budget has also shown a growth trend in the last few years, but the numbers are small compared to the procurement activities of the countries around Israel.

The key question in this context is whether the arms race has an adverse effect on Israel's qualitative advantage. "While Israel has better pilots and unique weapon systems, eventually, the massive amount of state-of-the-art weapon systems undermines our qualitative advantage," says Col. (res.) Dr. Shaul Shay, one of the authors of the recently-published study. “Admittedly, most of the arms are currently delivered to countries regarded as friendly (to Israel), but we must not fail to take into consideration scenarios according to which someday, those arms might be directed against us. One reminder, just to demonstrate – Iran was once a major friend (of Israel) which purchased its arms from the US and from Israel, while today it is a bitter enemy.”

Conversely, Haim Tomer, formerly the Head of the Mossad's Tevel Directorate (which is responsible, among other things, for relations with friendly countries in the region) reasons that the massive arming effort by such countries as Saudi Arabia "Is more of an opportunity than a threat for Israel."

“I do not envision a scenario where those arms are directed against us within a timeframe of years,” says Tomer. “Countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE regard themselves as much weaker than Israel, and the threat of the Iranian enemy, located right on their doorstep, is, to them, very concrete. If we could reach understandings with such countries, so that they would undertake some of the strikes against Iran in the event of a war, that would be excellent. Unfortunately, right now the massive arming of countries that are hostile to Iran is largely useless to the entire region.”

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