Re-Examining U.S. Arms Sales to Arab Regimes: An Idea Long Overdue

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Sarah Stern and Kyle Shideler

“The depiction of Khomeini as a fanatical reactionary and the bearer of crude prejudices seems certainly and happily false. What is encouraging is that his entourage of close advisers is uniformly composed of moderate, progressive individuals.”

— Richard Falk, The New York Times, February 16, 1979

The Middle East is in the midst of a massive political earthquake, stretching from Tunisia to Iran. On the streets of Tripoli today, Libyan fighter planes shot and killed scores of protesters in the streets.  U.S. allies Tunisia and Egypt have seen their dictators ousted by popular revolts, and three key issues remain unclear: who will rule in their place, whether the new governments will be pro-American and (in the case of Egypt) whether the new government will maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

Thanks to U.S. taxpayers’ dollars, the Egyptian military went from a grade C-, Soviet-equipped one to a grade A, American one. Egypt has been receiving around $1 to $2 billion worth of advanced American weaponry every year for the last 32 years. This arsenal has included F-15 and F-16 advanced fighter jets, M1A1 Abrams main battle tanks and Apache and Black Hawk helicopters.

Major weapons sales have also been made over the years to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, all of which are struggling with the unrest that threatens the stability of the region — not to mention the administration’s planned $60 billion weapons deal to Saudi Arabia.

What will happen with the billions of dollars in advanced weaponry the United States has provided without any clear national security policy? Who will control those weapons? As the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual mentor Yusuf Qaradawi makes a triumphant return to Egypt — preaching for the “conquest of Al-Aqsa” in Cairo’s now iconic Tahrir Square as secularists such as Google executive and Internet activist Wael Ghonim are shunted aside — we have reason to believe that the fingers on the trigger will not belong to friends of ours much longer.

We have been here before. In 1979, the fall of the Shah of Iran left billions of dollars in military hardware in the hands of the Khomeini regime. Between 1969 and 1979, Iran received more than $1 billion annually in arms transfers, hitting a peak in 1975 with a $5.4 billion package that included such high-tech equipment as AWACS aircraft.  Iran, it was argued, was a major component of our regional plans against the Soviet Union. It was at peace with Israel, and, while riddled with corruption and oppression, it was relatively secular and westernized. But in just a few months, all that suddenly changed.  Eventually, U.S. sanctions would be placed on Iran. In the long run, Iran’s need for U.S. military parts and equipment created a cat and mouse game of sanctions busting that goes on to this day. But in the first years after the Iranian revolution, U.S. weapons, especially aircraft, provided decisive, as seen in the role of the Iranian air force in the early years of the Iran-Iraq war.

We cannot predict what will occur in the months to come, but the early signs coming out of Egypt and Tunisia (where an ancient synagogue was attacked by crowds shouting ancient Islamic battle cries against the Jews) are not encouraging.

Although Hosni Mubarak has been gone only 10 days, the street in Cairo is already beginning to rise up against the military’s control. Six months is far too short a time for Egypt to develop the institutions of a democracy, including an independent judiciary, an independent and free press, freedom for religious minorities to practice their faiths, and freedom of assemblage.

All of the above means that the United States ought to place an immediate hold on all weapons deliveries to Arab regimes in the region, most especially to Egypt until the dust settles after the scheduled September election.

In the long view, the era of billions of dollars’ worth of American sales of conventional weapons systems to Arab regimes must come to an end. We should have surely learned by now that battle tanks, helicopters and fighter jets offer no defense against the infiltration of the dedicated Islamist and do little to prop up these regimes.

If we continue with business as usual, there will be a very strong likelihood that one day American GI’s may find themselves on the wrong side of the weapons we have been delivering to these regimes for years.

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About the Author

Sarah Stern
Sarah Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET).

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