WASHINGTON — UNITED States fighters to Saudi Arabia. Russian submarines to Iran. Hold it a second - weren't big powers talking about curbing arms sales to the Middle East?
They were, and might again, but the "Perm 5" talks - among the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council - on arms transfer restraint do not seem to be making much progress. China, ostensibly angered by the American sale of F-16s to Taiwan, has officially said it wants out. A negotiating session tentatively set for Moscow in September did not come off, and no further meetings are yet scheduled.
"There's a risk of the whole process unraveling," says Natalie Goldring, deputy director of the British American Security Information Council.
Restraint on arms sales to the Middle East seemed like an idea whose time might have come in the months following the Gulf war. In a speech at the Air Force Academy in May 1991, President Bush proposed a Middle East arms-control plan that centered on major suppliers exchanging information on proposed weapons sales. An early data swap would allow time to scrutinize and perhaps stop destabilizing sales.
The five biggest arms-exporting nations (who also happen to be the five permanent members of the UN Security Council) have since met sporadically to discuss the Bush proposals. There have been some achievements: They agreed, in general, to share sales information. But crucial points such as when the exchange should take place, and exactly what the data should entail, have not been set.
Enter big arms deals, stage left. Administration officials have said all along that "sales restraints" did not mean "no sales," and that they reserved the right to help allies build defenses in a manner they felt did not threaten regional stability.
But to critics, the recent White House approval of a new F-15 sale to Saudi Arabia was a cynical undercutting of the administration's own rhetoric about restraint.
The sale of US F-16 fighters to Taiwan also hurt the process, though Taiwan is far from the Middle East. Bush's approval of this sale angered China. The Chinese have been seen as the laggards in the Perm 5 talks, anyway, and now they have used the Taiwanese sale as an excuse to pull out.
Though public Chinese communiques on the subject are slightly ambiguous, "they have officially told us they will not participate," says a knowledgeable US official.
Now Russia, another Perm 5 participant, has joined the game by selling submarines to Iran. Reportedly, this deal involves up to three Kilo-class, diesel-powered vessels. US officials last month asked the Russians not to make the sale, citing fears that it would introduce sophisticated new weapons to the region. But "the Russians have told us they intend to proceed with the sale," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Oct. 2.
All these events combine to, at least, give the appearance that the Perm 5 process is not going anywhere anytime soon. In the past, the other powers have been able to use Chinese foot-dragging as an excuse, even though they too may have been reluctant to deal with certain issues such as the timing of information exchange.
"They almost prefer being in limbo," charges Ms. Goldring of the British American Security Information Council.
In any case, while the administration's approach in the Perm 5 talks could be a reasonable first step in restraining the global weapons bazaar, "it could have only a limited effect," points out a new report by the Congressional Budget Office.
Instead, the CBO study recommends the big arms-exporting nations get together and impose "mandatory, quantitative limits" on arms transfers to the Middle East: In other words, an OPEC for guns instead of petroleum.
Even without China's participation, an agreement among the US, France, Russia, and Britain could control "most sources of supply to the region," judges the CBO.