Iran Deal Reigniting Israeli Fears Over U.S. Arms Sales to Gulf States

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.

An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.
An F-35 Lightning II fighter jet.Credit: Bloomberg News

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, then-Prime 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 mosques.

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 so.

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.

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