The Saudi Arms Deal: A Win-Win-Win?

The massive US arms sale to Saudi Arabia is unlikely to deter Iranian nuclear ambitions

The proposed arms deal between Saudi Arabia and the United States is shaping up to be the largest in US history, totally somewhere around $60 billion.  Many are looking at this deal as a three-pronged victory for the Obama administration; the deal would create American jobs, providing concrete assurances to the Saudis that they do not need a nuclear program to defend the Arabian peninsula and arguably deter Iran by further empowering a regional rival.  While the first potential victory benefits Americans and would score some much-needed political points for democrats in the November elections, the latter two potentialities are slightly less guaranteed.  Indeed, the arms sale could potentially inspire the opposite outcomes.

That the proposed arms deal would create jobs for Americans is no surprise – indeed, it is one of the main talking points concerning the deal for administration officials.  The $60 billion of 10 years is set to create around 75,000 jobs while presumably providing job security for many others.  And ask any of the nearly 300,000 jobless Americans today, it is tough to put a negative political spin on job creation – particularly when another country is footing the bill.  The downfalls of this type of job creation, as far as I can tell, as two-fold.  First, it strengthens the American dependence on the bloated arms industry – already one of the largest industries in the country, providing the US – already the top arms exporter – with enough military might to sell nearly $6.8 billion in arms in 2009.

The main theoretical idea driving the argument that arms exportation creates jobs (and military spending in general) is a defense industry version of the Keynesian economic theory, commonly referred to as ‘military Keynesianism.’  Simply put, governments buy weapons from the arms industry which employs many Americans who go use their new disposable income on food, electronics and other goods, which further spurs other economic growth.  While the efficacy Keynesianism is debated (anyone remember the stimulus debacle?), the relative efficiency of military Keynesianism is not.

Studies have shown that while arms purchases by the government do indeed create jobs (11,600 jobs create for each $1 billion spent), the number of jobs created by investments in clean energy (17,000 jobs), health care (20,000 jobs) and education (29,000 jobs).  Unfortunately, it is highly unlikely that the Saudis are going to invest in American education or health care anytime in the near future.  So, the arms industry – while not the most effective at job creation – is the most likely recipient of foreign investment.

[tweetmeme] The second potential benefit of this arms deal, that a strong, US-backed Saudi military would convince the country that it does not need nuclear capabilities to protect the country is has a nice shell (pursuing the idea of a nuclear free Middle East), but is rather hollow.  Of course, given the stress that has been put on nuclear non-proliferation in recent years, proactively deterring Saudi Arabia is not a bad idea.  However, if Iran were to obtain a nuclear weapon a strong conventional army – unless used preemptively – is relatively useless.  Certainly, a strong conventional Saudi military could provide a deterrent to Iran targeting Riyadh with a nuclear weapon, but would do little if Iran decided to use the weapon.

Furthermore, it is entirely unlikely that Iran, even if it were to acquire nuclear capabilities, would turn against its Saudi neighbor.  While the two countries are often at political odds, the disagreements rarely concern real military threats, but rather religious and political differences.  More typical is the mutual fear that one of the countries will take a leading role in the region, leaving the other relatively powerless regionally.  It is infinitely more likely that an Iranian bomb would be aimed towards Israel than Saudi Arabia.

Finally, despite the rumors of nuclear technology, the Persians do not pose a serous military threat to the Saudi regime.  Saudi Arabia spends almost four times as much on its military than Iran (around US$40 billion to US$10 billion).  Furthermore, Iran’s military funding has recently been demolished by world sanctions and the Persian military has adopted the ‘mosaic doctrine‘ aimed to be a reactionary and deterrent force rather than an aggressive threat to its neighbors.  Iran does possess, though, strong rocket and missile capabilities.  Considering the probable nuclear intentions of Iran as well as the relative disparity between the Iranian and Saudi military, Saudi Arabia hardly requires defense guarantees against Iran.

So, finally, will a strong Saudi Arabia help deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon?  Many

commentators seem to think so.  However, if one is to believe that the motivation for an Iranian nuclear weapon is closely connected to legitimate concerns about national security.  Considering the belligerent talk coming from many hawks in the US and Israel, it is quite logical to believe that an immensely strengthened neighbor would expedite the nuclear process.  From Stephen Walt:

[I]f our primary goal is to discourage Iran from developing nuclear weapons, then might this new initiative be counter-productive? Doesn’t it just give Iran an even bigger incentive to get a nuclear deterrent of its own? Think about it: if you had a bad relationship with the world’s most powerful country, if you knew (or just suspected) that it was still backing anti-government forces in your country, if its president kept telling people that “all options were still on the table,” and if that same powerful country were now about to sell billions of dollars of weapons to your neighbors, wouldn’t you think seriously about obtaining some way to enhance your own security? And that’s hard to do with purely conventional means, because your economy is a lot smaller and is already constrained by economic sanctions. Hmmm….so what are your other options?

Moreover, the Saudi military is not only getting stronger, but, largely thanks to the moving pieces of the proposed US weapons deal, it is also prepared to become much more offensive.  From Commentary Magazine:

Other Persian Gulf nations like Bahrain and Kuwait have been loading up on missile-defense systems and air-defense fighters. The proposed Saudi sale, however, is weighted heavily toward strike aircraft (F-15s configured for ground attack) and anti-tank attack helicopters. The proposed sale includes 84 strike-configured F-15s along with the retrofit of the Saudis’ 72 existing F-15s, more than doubling the Royal Saudi Air Force’s (RSAF) inventory of medium-range strikers. Significantly, the purchase extends the range at which the RSAF can conduct ground strikes beyond the shorter, defense-oriented range of its British Tornado force.

The Saudis will also buy 70 Apache Longbow helicopters with laser-guided Hellfire missiles and 72 Black Hawk helicopters for combat transport. It’s not clear if any of these aircraft will supplant some of the 150 attack and multi-purpose helicopters the Saudis negotiated to buy from Russia a year ago. If all are delivered, the Saudis will have increased their heliborne ground combat capability by 500 percent.

The question is what they plan to do with all these aircraft. During the Saddam Hussein years, the threat of land attack against Saudi Arabia was obvious. Today, it’s not. The Saudis are buying for a major armed conflict on land, but nothing indicates that Iranpresents a threat of that kind. Iran isn’t prepared militarily to invade the Arabian Peninsula, either by land or sea, nor is it making the effort to be. Iran is building up its navy, missile forces, and nuclear options; its regional “power projection” effort on land is accomplished through sponsoring terrorism.

I am skeptical that this weapons deal will in anyway constrain the desire of Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon; worse yet, the deal might strengthen the desire.  The United States policy on Iran is largely defunct and does little to compel the Iranian regime to back away from the nuclear option.  By not removing a military strike against the country and threatening regime change, the US is only reinforcing Iranian insecurity.  Likewise, far from convincing Iran to temper its tone, this arms deal is likely to cause more anxiety in Tehran, leading to a stronger resolve to acquire nuclear capabilities.

All in all, it is difficult to predict the consequences of this deal.  Realistically, we can expect a spike in job creation through the further enrichment of the US arms industry and probably a more tender situation in the Middle East.  While the sale has the potential to signal US strength and resolve to the Israelis (thus trying to prevent an unwise Israeli strike), the transfer of such a large number of high-tech military equipment to the border of Iran is likely going to rattle a few (justly) paranoid political minds in Tehran.  I find it unlikely that this arms deal will lead to a clash between Iran and any of its neighbors; however, I cannot believe that the sale will do much to deter Iranian nuclear ambition.

Photos from Link Muslims and Find Target

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One thought on “The Saudi Arms Deal: A Win-Win-Win?

  1. I too find it unlikely that this arms deal will lead to a clash between Iran and any of its neighbors. And I too cannot believe that the sale will do much to deter Iranian nuclear ambition. Simply because I don’t think these are the goals behind the deal. Saudi has no reason whatsoever to act offensively. On the other hand, it has all the reasons in the world to assure that it can always defend itself – especially after the economic crises has shown that Saudi can’t hide behind the US back at all times. In other words, it’s time for Saudi to use the money for its own good! Like you said, it’s a win-win deal after all.

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