As the United Nations (UN) arms embargo on the Islamic Republic of Iran expired on October 18, 2020, various questions are emerging related to peace and security in West Asia. Some of these issues are lingering and repetitive, while a few issues arise anew. On such critical issue is the issue of the arms race in West Asia. As the embargo is lifted, it will have a long-term implications on the existing security dynamics of the region. As such, this article reflects upon the potential of such arms race in West Asia, which will be marked by the increased Great Power participation, especially by China and Russia. Moreover, the competition for regional hegemony and quest for security will give rise to the “security dilemma” that will contribute to a more unstable West Asia.
As the Eight-Year War (1981-88) started in September 1981, the mobilisation on both sides was followed by a large inflow of weapons into West Asia. At the time, Saddam Hussein was on the good side of the West, which yielded Iraq superior and a versatile arsenal of arms and related-technology. Whereas Iran looked at Libya and North Korea—the regimes that shared Iran’s antagonism towards the US—but lacked utterly in military technology. Later, as the war progressed, some major episodes involved the chemical attack by Saddam Hussein, Tanker Wars and the infamous “War of the Cities,” where both countries showered missiles on each other. These events remain inseparable not just from Iranians and Iraqi memories, but the memory of the entire region. More importantly, these episodes highlight the perils of the proliferation of arms in West Asia.
For decades after the war, Iran scorned its inferior air capabilities and worked to develop its “Missile Cities” and its large arsenal of the ballistic missiles. To that end, for the past two years, Iran has unveiled various categories of ballistic and cruise missiles, including the recently unveiled underground missiles, which Tehran claim to have buried all over Iran. Currently, Tehran possesses one of the most comprehensive missile programs in West Asia, which according to Iran—is an instrument of Iran’s deterrence against its regional opponents. However, such moves have contributed to amplify insecurity among its neighbours, in particular, Saudi Arabia and Israel.
In other words, Iran-Iraq War presents a classic case of security dilemma—wherein, the war led to increasing in arms proliferation in the region that led to heighten the insecurity of the states, which, in turn, purchased more weapons to feel secure. As a result, even after the war, the region ended having more weapons and less security. In a similar vein, the same way, the expiration of embargo possess the potential for increased insecurity in the region, which will have long-term implications for West Asia, where states will find security only through acquiring more weapons.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Middle East accounts for 35 per cent of total arms import from 2015 to 2019, which increased 12 per cent from previous five years period (2010-14). From 2015-19, five Middle East countries—Saudi Arabia (35 per cent of total imports in the region), Egypt (16 per cent), the UAE (9.7 per cent), Iraq (9.7 per cent) and Qatar (9.6 per cent)—featured in the list of top ten importers of arms.
After the assassination of Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraq is in talks to purchase S-300 from Russia. Egypt has emerged as the second-largest importer of arms in the region, and the hostilities with Turkey presents more possibilities for conflicts and consumption of arms. The war in Yemen and Syria is a critical flashpoint for the rise in conflict, which could serve as ground zero for testing these weapons. The Turkish involvement in several conflicts in the region, such as Libya, Kurdish regions, Nagorno Karabakh and the Mediterranean Sea is also a case in point that will further exacerbate the situation. In sum, the avenues and justification for sales/purchase of arms throughout the region are becoming more pronounced and prominent.
In terms of exports of arms to the region, the US overwhelmingly accounts for more than half of total arms sales (53 percent), followed by France (12 percent) and Russia (11 percent). For decades, China has been engaging the region through economic diplomacy and through its ambitious Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). However, its intention to move ahead with a comprehensive agreement with Iran is indicative of a more proactive approach that goes beyond economic interests. China already under discussion with the 25-Year Strategic Partnership agreement. Additionally, China has exported arms, which Iran has deployed for the coastal defence in the Persian Gulf. After the embargo lifted, Beijing will look at Iran with a prospective market for Chinese arms. However, Beijing’s hostility with the US will decide the pace of Chinese engagement in security issues in the region. But, in case, both the US and Russia continue profiting off the arms sales, China will find it worthwhile to follow in their footsteps.
Similarly, Russia, which had earlier provided radars and aircraft components to Iran, will seek to capitalise on this opportunity. In 2015, after the JCPOA was concluded, Russia sold S-300 to Iran, which currently constitutes one of the crucial components of Iran’s defence arsenal. Moreover, Iran is also in talks to sign a 20-year strategic agreement with Russia. Therefore, the interaction of the Great Powers with each other and their engagement with the regional actors will play a huge role in shaping the security environment of West Asia.
Inarguably, arms embargo cannot be viewed independently, but in association with multiple other factors, such as the collapse of Iran Nuclear deal and the normalisation of relations by UAE and Bahrain. Over the last two years, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Nuclear Deal has undergone a slow death, which has become a sordid affair not just between Iran and the US, but Iran and Europe. The discussions around the deal were renewed in June, as the US announced that it wants to extend the expiring arms embargo. This was followed by diplomatic wrangling at the UN, followed by the US efforts advocating the snapback of sanctions on Iran. For Iran, the EU, China and Russia came through, and both the efforts were truncated. Now, as the embargo expires, the Iranian politicians, the generals and even President Hassan Rouhani himself have become engaged in making provocative statements that run the risk of escalating the existing tensions.
Similarly, the normalisation of relations between the UAE and Bahrain with Israel will allow further avenues for sales of arms to the region. However, this does not mean that the US never sold any arms to the UAE or Bahrain, but now Washington would be more comfortable in selling high-end technology to these countries. However, this may not be as it sounds, given the fact that Israel continues to oppose such moves. For instance, after the signing of Abraham Accords, Washington has been pushing to sell the F-35s fighter jets to the UAE that Israel is opposing.
Indeed, the normalisation deal will prompt Iran to reconsider its security situation. Despite the assurance from the UAE, Iran sees it as the part of Washington’s encirclement strategy. Inarguably, within Iran, the deal has ruffled feathers among all sections of the politico-security establishment, especially the IRGC. However, it will likely lead to increased control of the IRGC within Iran because this makes it easier for the IRGC to sell the logic of purchasing more arms, once the embargo expires. Next year, the IRGC is also likely to pitch a candidate in the Presidency election, which would enable them to have more control over the agenda of arms sales/purchase. Even though the Iranians have appeared prescient about their security requirements, as they regularly highlight the prowess of the domestic defence industry, but it is unlikely that Tehran will let such opportunity slip away. Most of the rhetoric around the indigenous capability (except the missile program) is simply a window dressing measure, which has been peddled, in case, the embargo failed to be lifted. In short, for most states in West Asia, the ‘threat from Iran’ and ‘threat to Iran’ are viable justifications for their increased investments in purchasing arms.
The outcome of the US elections will indeed have a clobbering impact on how the states in the region perceive their interests, but it is unlikely to change the existing threat perceptions that exist in West Asia. The new President will have the choice of deciding the magnitude of Washington’s engagement in this arms race, but it seems unlikely that he will transform how states view each other. To conclude, the expiration of embargo has the potential to open the flood gates for heightened tensions and instability in the region. This might steer the region into a security dilemma, where the security of one state will come at the cost of insecurity for another.
*Prabhat Jawla is currently a research intern at West Asia Centre at Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA), New Delhi.