Iran nuclear deal pulled the trigger of an arms race in the Middle East

Ayaz Ahmed

      Soon after the Iran nuclear deal, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced in Doha on 3 August 2015 that Washington would speed up arms sales to the Gulf States. In the midst of the ongoing nuclear deal struck between the P5+1 and Iran in Vienna on July 14, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordon, Egypt and Israel have all increased defense spending in recent months to purchase fighter planes, combat helicopters, warships, missiles, battle tanks and heavy artillery. They are apprehensive that the nuclear deal would free up billions of dollars in oil revenue for Tehran , thereby helping it revitalize its economic and military footholds in the region. 

Resultantly, the major global arms exporters, namely the US, Britain, France and Russia are engaged in ramping up arms sales to the turmoil- stricken Middle East. Some military strategists argue that the deal may well open up both conventional and nuclear armaments in the region. Arguably, the competing and divergent interests of the regional powers manifest that they would increase imports of sophisticated arms due to existing imbalance of power. As a result, the oil-rich region is expected to be a hot place of Cold War amongst Big Powers and flashpoint of armaments among Iran, Saudi Arabia and nuclear Israel.

In some cases, a military spending spree is already in progress. In recent months, the US has cut deals for more than $6 billion in military hardware with Israel and its Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies. But the American law passed by Congress in 2008 requires the US to maintain Israel’s military superiority over any potential enemy in the Middle East. Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said that, “Whatever the US sells to the Gulf cannot be more advanced than what it sells to Israel.” To capitalize on this fear, US missile defense system makers such as Raytheon and Lockheed Martin have already been active in the region; Raytheon has inked $5 billion worth of missile defense equipment contracts since December, a sizable chunk of that in the Middle East. 

More importantly, two regional powers, namely Iran and Saudi Arabia perceive each other from the realistic perspective. They have entirely divergent regional interests based on the premise of their national security and attainment of unmatchable regional powers. The House of Saud has been watching the developments with extreme caution and showing  its annoyance over the talks from the start. In a post-sanctions scenario, an economically prosperous Iran with the least transparent possible military dimension of its nuclear program is perceived as a grave threat to the Kingdom. Saudi Arabia fears that Iran could use its oil wealth and new assets to arm various militant groups it supports in other countries, which include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shia groups in Syria and Iraq and Houthi rebels in Yemen. On the other side, Iran is apprehensive that more major arms deals, which are on the horizon, would help the Arab monarchies to project power and dominance in the region to the disadvantage of the Iranian interests.

Saudi Arabia 

As mentioned above, Saudi Arabia has increased its all sorts of defence spending in the wake of the nuclear deal aimed at outstripping Iran militarily. Just weeks after the pact was announced, the kingdom signed up to buy 600 Patriot missiles from the United States at $5 billion, and it also is expected to purchase 10 Sikorsky MH-60R naval helicopters. According to figures released in April 2015 by the Stockholm Institute Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Riyadh already became the fourth largest defense market in the world. Saudi Arabia’s spending rose by 14 percent in 2013 from the previous year at $67 billion, it exceeded those of France, Japan and Britain for the first time. Over the following four years, the kingdom put $3 billion into Abrams tanks, Black Hawk helicopters and light armoured vehicles from the US. It also went on a European shopping spree: $4 billion in French helicopters, Euro fighter Typhoon aircraft, and a $2.8 billion deal to build a high-tech security fence on its border with Iraq.


Saudi Arabian army UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter during Operation Desert Shield

The Kingdom mostly buys American systems such as Hellfire missiles, LAV III armored vehicles, Sea Hawk helicopters, drones and F-15 fighter jets. At present, it is striving to get materialized some US pending arms deals which include 10 Sikorsky MH-60R helicopters and associated equipment valued at $1.9 billion, and another $1.75 billion transactions for up to 202 Lockheed Martin-built PAC-3 missiles. Since the US policy has frustrated Saudi leaders, they are increasingly turning to Chinese, Russian and European manufacturers to get more weapons.

On the nuclear front, the House of Saud has planned to expand its nuclear programme. “At the King Abdullah Atomic Energy City (KACARE), Saudi nuclear scientists have already carried out the strategic planning on a nuclear program, and plans are in place to spend around $80 billion over the next twenty years to build about sixteen nuclear power reactors in which Russia would play a contributing role.” 

Established methods of producing plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) are already in place at KACARE, and several Saudi nuclear scientists have earned their PhD’s researching new forms of civil nuclear technology. In short, foundational work is well underway at KACARE to realize the three essentials to producing HEU: a nuclear fuel fabrication supply chain, the manufacture of centrifuges and related technologies and the storage of fuel and centrifuges in various stages of usability. Kingdom can also seek Pakistani technical cooperation in this field as a reward of its alleged financing of the Pakistani program in the past decade.

According to the nuclear deal, a UN conventional arms embargo on Tehran would be lifted within five years and Import restrictions on ballistic missile technology could be lifted within eight years. While the overall deal prevents Iran from obtaining conventional weapons for five years and missile technology for eight, seemingly taking Tehran out of any weapons build-up in the region. 

Iran has 600,000 troops excluding reserves, 1,700 tanks, nearly 300 fighter and ground-attack planes, several hundred surface-to-air and ballistic missile launchers and a bevy of small fast boats. But it is still in precarious security situation due to less spending on military compared to the combined Gulf nations. According to the New York Times, Iran’s military budget is only about a tenth of the combined military budgets of the Sunni states and Israel. The Times says that the Arab Gulf nations spend a staggering $ 130 billion annually on defence while Iran’s annual military budget is about $ 15 billion.


Iranian warships regularly conduct military drills in the Strait of Hormuz — where a third of the world’s traded oil supplies pass through the narrow sea passage PHOTO: AFP

Iran’s modern fighter is the MiG-29 delivered in the early 1990s. The rest of the fighter force includes aged US-supplied F-14s, F-4s, and F-5s, as well as Russian-supplied Su-24 attack jets and Dassault Aviation Mirage F-1ut, and most of them have remained grounded for lack of spare parts due to economic and military sanctions imposed by the US, the EU and the UN. However, there are fears that Russia will disregard the nuclear deal. In this context, Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, said that Moscow would continue to supply arms to Tehran. In the foreseeable future, Iran will, however, focus more on its economic matters because the crushing economic sanctions have adversely impacted the Iranian economy. 


Like Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also alarmed at the deal and resultant Iranian regional preponderance. “It has spent nearly $23 billion on defense in recent years. After the deal, it was likely that the US may begin to reduce its extensive support for the GCC, thus placing the UAE in a position of military vulnerability. Therefore, since then, the UAE has been holding a contract for more than 1,000 laser-guided bombs built by Boeing and Raytheon worth $130 million. Additionally, another potential $900 million deal for a dozen of Lockheed’s High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems and 100 rockets is also on the table. Moreover, the UAE is expecting worth about $200 million of General Atomics Predator drones next year from the US. It could also purchase some F-16sfrom the US to boost its airpower.”

Egypt and Jordan 

An influential Iran is also feared by Egypt and Jordan. Egypt watches Iran with disdain and reservation on account of the latter’s aid to the Islamists in Egypt and in the Gaza Strip. Probably due to its uneasiness emanating from Iranian and Israeli power, Egypt sealed a nuclear deal with Russia in February 2015 to construct and operate its first ever nuclear reactor. Egypt also planned to buy Russia’s advanced S-300 air defence system in March 2015.Moreover, TASS, the Russian news agency, said that Egypt would receive the Antey-2500 missile system, an S-300 variant, and put the value of the contract at more than a billion dollars. Cairo could well increase its defence outgoings because the United States lifted its freeze on the annual military aid of $1.3 billion to Egypt in late March 2015. 

In March 2015, Jordan also inked a $ 10 billion deal with Moscow to build the kingdom’s first nuclear power plant with two 1,000 megawatt reactor. In the future, if both the countries find Iran engaged in enriching uranium for the nuclear weapon, they will probably convert their civilian programmes into nuclear ones, hence nuclearising the turmoil-stricken Middle East.


Qatar, another oil-rich Gulf country, is slowly expanding its military reach and influence around the region particularly owing to the re-entry of Iran in these regional affairs. It has inked a $17 billion contract for French-made Rafale fighter jets, and wants to buy Boeing F-15s. In 2014, Qatar dropped $11 billion on Apache helicopters and patriot and Javelin air-defense systems from some US defense companies, and in May 2015, it spent another $7 billion on French fighter jets to add to its growing arsenal.

By the military agreement signed between Turkey and Qatar in December 2014, the two countries agreed to exchange operational training experiences, cooperate in the defense industry and carry out joint military exercises. Turkey and Qatar will be able to use each other’s sea ports, airports, air space and military facilities, as well as share intelligence. They will also further foster their counter-terrorism cooperation. This military alliance will enable Qatar to boost the capacity of its defense industry and enhance its military experience, while diversifying its military partners in the region.

Bahrain has been fighting a Shiite revolt since 2011.It has increased its defense budget by 110 percent particularly fuelled by the threat from Iran. SIPRI predicts that Bahrain spends $ 2 billion and the US is the key military supplier to Manama. The country is expected to export more lethal arms from the US and other western arms exporters


The Iran nuclear deal is not only a failure of the Israeli foreign policy, it has also instigated security threats to the territorial integrity of the country. Owing to the deal, Israel has also increased it arms exports and defence expenditures. The Jewish state spends about 16 billion dollars annually on its defence, plus the 3.0 billion it receives as US military grants. Israel is set to receive a $1.9 billion shipment of US weapons that many analysts see as a US effort to assuage Israeli concerns over the Iran deal. Approved in May 2015, the deal includes 250 AIM-120C Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missiles, 50 BLU-113 bunker-buster bombs capable of penetrating 20 feet of reinforced concrete and 3,000 Hellfire anti-armor missiles.”

629464028Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Center, Dimona.Reuters / Haaretz Archive

The Economist last year estimated Israel had 80 nuclear weapons in its arsenal. It had a triad of nuclear delivery systems. Israel’s US-supplied F-15 and F-16 aircraft can deliver nuclear weapons anywhere in the Middle East. France provided the early Israeli missile program with the technology for what is now the Jericho medium-range missile system. The latest version of the Jericho has a range of 5,000 kilometers, according to experts.

According to Der Spiegel, a German magazine, Israel’s German-built submarines called Dolphins are equipped with nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Five Dolphins have been delivered so far, a sixth is due in 2017. They can target Iran from the Mediterranean and from the Arabian Sea. Moreover, Israel has the benefit of enormous amounts of American intelligence and military support, including more than $3 billion in grant aid every year.

The ongoing regional armament does not bode well for the tranquility and security of the Middle East. It would encourage Saudi Arabia and nuclear Israel to adopt a bellicose attitude towards Iran, thereby inducing her in jumping into the menacing arms race after the lifting of its sanctions. The possibility of confrontation is highly likely to ratchet up on account of more sophisticated weapons at the disposal of these potential powers. Resultantly, the region will be the strategic loser whereas the global arms exporting countries would be the ultimate winners.

 Note:References are with the author that may be shared on request for research purposes.

The writer is the editor of The Asia Watch.


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