A Realistic Path to Mideast Arms Control

President Bush's proposal is a good first step, but needs some modifications to clear the region's political hurdles

PRESIDENT Bush proposed in his recent speech at the Air Force Academy to control missiles, weapons of mass destruction, and conventional weapons in the Middle East. While idealistic, the Bush plan is an important first step; it sets a positive diplomatic framework for further United States arms-control efforts. But, like proposals by previous American presidents, it could founder on the shoals of Arab-Israeli political hostility. Past American initiatives have had very limited success. A 1950 agreement among the United States, France, and Britain to restrain arms sales was derailed by Soviet aid to Egypt and escalating regional tensions. Attempts by Presidents Kennedy and Johnson to halt an Israeli-Egyptian nuclear weapon and missile competition produced little but an Egyptian pledge not to build nuclear weapons. In the 1970s, the arms-control component of President Nixon's peace initiative ran aground because of Israel's contin ued presence in occupied territories.

Just as past efforts were derailed by political tensions in the Middle East, the Bush plan's success or failure may depend on changes in the region after the Gulf war. There are positive new trends, including US-Soviet cooperation. A political solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, however, remains elusive. While some countries, such as Israel and Egypt, may be open to limited arms control, overall progress could be stymied by deadlock on broader political issues.

Under these difficult circumstances, the Bush administration should play to its strong suit, building international support for Middle East arms control, particularly among important weapons suppliers. Arms-control diplomacy in the Middle East should be realistic, focusing on small steps - for example, measures to build confidence - and reasonable tradeoffs among the region's major adversaries. Elements:

A conventional-arms supplier group. The Bush package essentially adopts an earlier initiative by Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney that the five major weapons suppliers - the US, France, Britain, the Soviet Union, and China - control weapons sales.

The Western countries face domestic pressures to support industries hurt by the end of the cold war through weapons exports. The Soviet Union and China desperately need to sell weapons for hard currency. But export controls with teeth would limit sales of items - like advanced combat aircraft and armored vehicles - that are large money earners.

A supplier group will work only with strong American leadership. Unfortunately, Defense Secretary Cheney's recent trip to the Middle East, when he discussed arms control and simultaneously announced some limited arms sales, does not bode well for the future. The US should challenge other suppliers to join a temporary moratorium on sales while export guidelines are rapidly completed. This would signal a new American seriousness about preventing arms transfers.

A ban on chemical weapons. Inventories are widespread; Syria, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Libya have chemical weapons, and Saudi Arabia may have them.

The administration has already announced tighter US controls on chemical exports and has convinced the Australia Group, the chemical-exporters organization, to adopt similar standards. The Australia Group should be expanded to include other major industrialized countries, the Soviet Union and East Europe, and emerging suppliers such as India.

Rapid completion of the Geneva negotiations on a global chemical-weapons ban could give the US added diplomatic leverage. An international agreement may induce some countries - for example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states - to join a ban immediately. This would be a first step toward a regional chemical-weapons free zone. However, Syria could be reluctant to agree to a chemical weapons ban without constraints on Israel's nuclear program; Israel may not join without Syria.

Ban on plutonium production and uranium enrichment. Such a ban would amount to a freeze on the production of weapons-grade materials in the region and on the construction of new facilities capable of producing these materials. Currently, only Israel has such installations. These are located at Dimona, where it is presumed Israel is adding to its stocks of plutonium for unacknowledged nuclear arms.

The administration's package appears to be offering a trade; in return for Israel's capping its nuclear arsenal - it would not be obligated to give up the nuclear weapons it possesses - the Arab states in the region would be required to accept a ban on suspicious nuclear plants and to give up their chemical arsenals.

Significantly, the administration has put the Israeli nuclear program on the bargaining table after turning a blind eye to it for years. However, the bargain looks like a non-starter from the perspective of some Arab states, particularly Syria. A more even trade that could serve as an initial step pending further controls would be a freeze on Israel's production of nuclear-weapons material in return for a freeze on further Arab production of chemical arms. Each side's remaining weapons would allow it to enjoy an element of deterrence - and the unconventional arms race could take a breather.

Ban on surface-to-surface missiles. A ban is the simple solution to a complicated problem since almost every country in the region has a ballistic-missile arsenal. Most Arab missiles, predominantly Scuds, have been purchased abroad while Israel's missiles are built at home.

As a first step, exports to the Middle East of missiles with ranges over 50 miles and related technology should be stopped. This would cover all guided missiles, including shorter-range weapons, threatening to Israel. Such a measure will not be easy to implement; North Korea continues to sell missiles, and China's intentions remain unclear. Moreover, some countries may view the current US-Israeli attempt to build an antiballistic missile as inconsistent with such a pledge.

Within the region, the Bush plan proposes a ban on acquisition, production, and testing of missiles. The emphasis should be placed on halting testing. Unlike Arab missiles, Israel's home-grown weapons would not be affected by export controls. But a flight-test ban would help balance the arms-control burden by stopping Israel's missile modernization program. It also can be verified without intrusive on-site inspections.

Ultimately, the success of the administration's regional proposals will depend on the cooperation of countries in the Middle East. However, the US-Soviet experience has demonstrated that successful arms control requires a shared view that diplomatic accommodation can enhance security, a perspective lacking in the Middle East.

A more apt analogy would be the US-Soviet relationship during the height of the cold war. Arms-control proposals had little chance of success then but they still helped stimulate the growth of government expertise which served both countries well when serious negotiations began. The Bush proposals may serve a similar purpose: to raise the regional salience of arms control and to build indigenous expertise in the hope of better days to come.

Like the evolving US-Soviet relationship, real progress in Middle East arms control will only be achieved with parallel movement toward resolving political differences. Without such progress, tentative first steps will be overwhelmed by continued hostility. If that happens, the Bush plan will become just another chapter in the short, unsuccessful history of Middle East arms control.

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