A Sharper Edge: QME, the Iran Deal and the Gulf Arms Race

In order to persuade its allies in Israel and Gulf Arab states to support the Iran nuclear deal, the United States is relying on inducements of weaponry sales; this regional militarisation is further destabilising the wider Middle East region.

The July 2015 international deal on regulating Iran’s nuclear programme, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), looks to be a triumph for international diplomacy in a region that all too often sees diplomacy lose out to military force. However, in order to persuade its allies in Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states to support the deal, the United States is offering ‘consolation packages’ of ever-higher quantities and qualities of weaponry.  This regional militarisation is further destabilising the wider Middle East region by fuelling an arms race and by increasing the attractiveness of hybrid or proxy warfare.


A Saudi Air Force F-15. Image via Flickr

Arms Sales to Gulf Arab States

The six Arab monarchies that comprise the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, UAE) are enthusiastic consumers of weaponry, which they overwhelmingly procure from the US, UK and France. Saudi Arabia is by far the largest military spender and arms importer among them. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Kingdom’s record military expenditure of over $80 billion in 2014 made it the fourth highest military spender in the world, overtaking the UK and France. It is now the world’s second largest arms importer. The other GCC states are also major spenders: Oman is probably the world’s highest military spender by percentage of GDP, averaging 12% between 2010 and 2014; last year the United Arab Emirates’ military expenditure reached $23 billion and it has been the world’s fourth largest arms importer for a decade. Together, the GCC states account for about 12% of global arms imports. Only India imports more weapons.

The Gulf States enjoy a close commercial and strategic relationship with the United States, which is manifested in the huge sums spent on US weaponry, and the fact that the US military overtly uses land, air and naval bases in at least five of the six Gulf Arab states; its ongoing presence in Saudi Arabia is much lower key. Despite this, there are limitations on the quality and quantity of weaponry that the US can sell to GCC states. This is because of the US’ ongoing commitment to maintain Israel’s ‘qualitative military edge’ (QME) over its regional adversaries.

A term coined by Israel’s founding leader David Ben-Gurion in 1953, QME was formally written into US law by Congress in 2008. Legislation now states that the US President must carry out an ongoing ‘empirical and qualitative assessment’ of Israel’s QME over military threats to Israel, and this must be brought into consideration when assessing applications to provide military hardware or services to other countries in the Middle East. As the GCC states could in the future become adversaries to Israel, whose statehood none currently recognize and which Saudi Arabia and Kuwait opposed in the 1967 and 1973 wars, this has long restricted sales of the highest technology weapons, surveillance and targeting systems to Gulf Arab states.

QME and anti-Iran Alignments

Recent regional events, and the JCPOA in particular, have seen Israel and the Gulf States find themselves increasingly aligned against Iran. The Israeli leadership has been consistently critical of the deal while the Gulf States were hesitant to support it because of their fears that an economically, militarily and diplomatically resurgent Iran would dominate the Middle East region and potentially vie with them to become the US’ chief regional ally.

Relations between Israel and the Gulf have long been shrouded in secrecy, although that does not mean they have not existed. From 1950 until Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, for instance, there was periodic Israeli involvement in the operation of the ‘Trans-Arabia Pipeline’ (Tapline), and throughout the 1990s Israel and various GCC states began to set up trade offices; various Gulf States have, at different times and to varying extents, had a hand in the Arab-Israeli peace process. In the last few years, Israel and the Gulf States have increasingly found their regional interests aligning; this came to the fore during the 2011 Arab uprisings when they argued that American policy was exacerbating regional instability.

The coincidence of interests between Israel and the GCC was referenced by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in September; in a speech to the UN General Assembly he spent much of his time denigrating the Iran deal, but he also mentioned the ‘common dangers’ faced by Israel and Arab states, and his hope that they could build ‘lasting partnerships’ to counter such dangers. There has predictably been no discussion of any official agreement between Israel and any Gulf State, but rumours of potential partnerships have been germinating: one suggested that Bahrain, an island in the Persian Gulf, was looking to buy Iron Dome anti-missile defence systems from Israel; these reports were hotly denied by Bahraini officials.

GCC Support for the Iran Deal

Despite stiff and vocal opposition from the Republican majority in the Senate, Obama has recently signed waivers that would conditionally allow the lifting of US sanctions subject to Iran fulfilling its JCPOA obligations. An altogether different challenge for Obama was placating America’s allies in the Gulf.

Although Obama was not reliant on the Gulf Arab States to approve the Iran deal, it was sufficiently controversial to dent relations between them and the United States. This was demonstrated in May of this year when Obama invited GCC leaders to Camp David, where he attempted to persuade them personally of the merits of the deal: new Saudi monarch King Salman pulled out of attending at the last minute. Those that remained were hoping for a formal security treaty that would bind the US to support the GCC militarily in the case of an attack, but the Obama administration eventually won their support with promises of ‘support and capacity-building’, which essentially boiled down to bigger, faster arms deals.

King Salman has played a tough game with the Obama administration. After his no-show in May, the Saudis reminded the US that they do not rely exclusively on the American arms market when in June they conducted extensive talks with France, discussing the potential purchase of French civil nuclear technology and further arms deals, the immediate outcome of which was the French sale of $500 million worth of helicopters. Qatar and Egypt (likely financed by GCC patrons) have also made multi-billion dollar arms deals with France this year; as has Kuwait with Italy. There was also much talk of Saudi interest in Russian equipment during August.

Salman eventually reconciled with the Obama administration during a lavish state visit to Washington in September. Before talks between the two heads of state, Obama administration officials confirmed that Israel would be the only regional recipient of the forthcoming F-35 stealth fighter; they can thus claim to be considering Israel’s QME. However, officials also said that Obama would discuss ‘a range of other options meant to bolster Saudi defences’. Salman ultimately professed to come away reassured that the Iran deal would ‘contribute to security and stability in the region’. His price for this statement was a reassurance from Obama that US weapons technology and systems would be fast-tracked to Saudi Arabia, and a free hand to use such weapons in the Saudi-led war in Yemen.

Arms Sales and Geopolitics

Obama’s solution to winning support for the Iran deal from the Gulf Arab States is inherently flawed. While Gulf Arab leaders, having been promised these deals, professed their conviction that the deal would lead to regional stability, the promise of further military hardware was nevertheless purported to be intended to help states repel potential attacks from Iran. Although the narrative of the Israeli and American right is that Iran wants nuclear weapons to destroy Israel, an alternative explanation is that it is the huge qualitative and quantitative superiority in conventional weapons by US-allied Sunni Arab states that has driven Iran’s desire to develop nuclear weapons capabilities.

While the Iran nuclear deal may decrease the likelihood of a preemptive attack on Iran by either its Gulf Arab rivals or Israel, the escalating wars in Yemen and Syria indicate that Saudi Arabia and other conservative Arab monarchies (Morocco and Jordan have joined GCC allies in both interventions) are increasingly willing to employ a more interventionist approach in the region, both directly and via proxies, wherever they see the expansion of Iranian interests. This is facilitated by US weaponry, intelligence and diplomatic support.

The war in Yemen has already had catastrophic humanitarian consequences, with at least 2,615 civilians killed and about 1.5 million people displaced. Reports suggest that larger quantities of US military hardware could be making their way to Syria after a 24 October meeting between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi officials, including King Salman, to discuss greater support for ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels in response to Russian air strikes. The White House has claimed that Russia would not succeed in achieving a military solution to the conflict, but the United States is equally unlikely to enforce a military solution.

The JCPOA is a diplomatic breakthrough that will likely be far more successful in reducing Iran’s capacity to develop nuclear weapons than air or missile strikes. However, while Iran can no longer look to the nuclear option to give it a military advantage, or parity, it may consider other options. The strategic alignment of Israel and the Gulf States means that Obama has greater leverage to use arms deals to maintain the support of his Gulf allies, but a result of these deals is that a huge amount of conventional weaponry is being poured into the Gulf and from there to regional conflicts.

Many of these conflicts involve Iranian proxies, and Iran may compensate for its lack of either nuclear or conventional leverage by increasing military support for these proxies, including those in Syria and Yemen. The United States’ method of securing regional support for the JCPOA thus adds fuel to the fire of regional conflicts and humanitarian crises, and makes diplomatic outcomes, whether in Syria or Yemen, ever more distant.

Finbar Anderson is Communications Intern with Oxford Research Group.  Having lived and studied in Egypt, he has recently completed a Master’s degree in History of International Relations, focusing on the politics of the Middle East, at the London School of Economics.