THE United States and its European allies are developing a plan to curb sales of arms to Arab and other third-world countries, once the Gulf war is over. They hope to agree on new weapons procurement arrangements that will enable them to sell arms more freely to each other instead of to developing countries.
The initiative is being spearheaded by William Taft, the US permanent representative at NATO headquarters in Brussels, and has the support of Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and France.
The NATO plan is a ``necessary attempt to prevent the acquisition of weapons by countries which may intend to follow aggressive policies,'' says Paul Rogers, head of the department of peace studies at Bradford University in England.
Iraq, which at the outset of the Gulf war had the world's fourth-largest armed forces, is a textbook example of a country that was allowed to purchase huge quantities of arms without adequate safeguards as to their use, Dr. Rogers says. There would, however, be ``enormous difficulty'' in creating new patterns of arms sales and purchasing in the Arab world, he adds.
Plan boosted by Gulf war
Mr. Taft, a former US deputy defense secretary, first launched his arms-trade proposals last March, well before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait. He says the crisis in the Gulf has given a boost to a plan that might otherwise have taken years to mature.
Leading weapons-producing nations have sold most of their output to third-world countries. The arms trade between NATO members has been hampered by rivalry and protectionism. Taft wants to lower barriers among NATO countries and simultaneously raise outer barriers to control arms sales to developing countries.
A British defense official said this combination would enable the West's arms industries to remain prosperous while decreasing the risk of leaders such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein using weapons purchased from the West to pursue destabilizing policies.
Rogers says the Middle East will remain ``a tinder box'' if controls are not placed on arms sales to its leading countries.
The Soviet Union appears to support that view. Sergei Grigoryev, President Mikhail Gorbachev's deputy spokesman, said Feb. 18 that members of the anti-Iraq coalition should ``stop supplying dangerous members of the international community with any weapons they can use against peaceful civilians.''
The Soviet Union has been Iraq's biggest arms supplier.
In speeches over the past month James Baker III, the US secretary of state, and Douglas Hurd, his British opposite number, have both said curbs on the supply of weapons to the Arab countries should be high among the priorities for achieving stability in the Gulf.
If Arab countries could be prevented from amassing huge quantities of arms, their economies would benefit greatly, Rogers notes.
Before the Gulf war began, Iraq was spending one-quarter of its gross domestic product on defense. Syria and Israel each spend up to 15 percent. This compares with 3 to 4 percent for most NATO countries.
Heavy dependence on West
Denying Middle East countries access to high-tech Western weaponry would not be a complete solution, says a British Defense Ministry official - Israel, Iraq, and Egypt have their own defense industries. But they are heavily dependent on Western - and in some cases Soviet - know-how. A NATO-imposed curb would set limits to the sophistication they could achieve.
Foreign Secretary Hurd said this month that the initial emphasis should be on the removal of ``unconventional'' weapons from the Middle East.
Officials working with Taft on the NATO plan concede that that will not be easy. Saddam's arsenal of chemical and biological weapons was developed, they say, with help from German scientists and suppliers. His attempts to acquire nuclear capability were helped by a combination of foreign know-how supplied clandestinely and industrial espionage by Iraqi agents.
Britain's experience in attempting to prevent Iraq from acquiring unauthorized military technology underscores the problems NATO might face in operating a policy of arms export denial against third-world countries.
West thwarted supergun project
Last year Iraq very nearly acquired the components of a supergun - code-named Project Babylon - that would have been able to hit targets in Israel. Customs officers at British seaports, however, prevented the export of gun-barrel components that had been labeled as parts of a petrochemical complex.
Gordon Brown, the opposition Labour Party's trade spokesman, says: ``The supergun affair demonstrates that the arms embargo against Iraq was significantly breached and that Parliament was never properly informed why this happened. There was incompetence at the highest level.''
Taft's officials in Brussels say one of the hardest parts of the NATO arms plan will be persuading the Western allies that they should open up to weapons sales among themselves.
``We Europeans would all like to sell more of our weapons to the US, but protectionism in the US Congress has always been an obstacle,'' says a British government official. ``That will have to change. So too will the reluctance of European countries to allow their weapons industries to compete with each other.''