Armament Deals Flourish Despite Bids for Limits

US seeks to put lid on Middle East buildup, while nations try to restock their arsenals

NINE months after President Bush announced a Middle East arms-control initiative, the nations of the region are still shopping for billions of dollars worth of new weapons.

In recent months America's allies in the anti-Iraq coalition have bought everything from Apache attack helicopters to cluster bombs. Iran is snapping up MIG-29 fighters and tanks from republics of the former Soviet Union.

Sales remain below the historic highs of the mid-1980s, but with the lesson of Saddam Hussein still before them, it's clear no Middle East country is going to be beating F-16s into plowshares anytime soon.

Most have announced military modernization plans, and United States defense firms doing business in the region have said they have seen an upsurge in interest for their wares since the end of the Gulf war. Among deals so far, from records compiled by congressional researchers:

* Bahrain ordered 27 US M-60 tanks and 8 AH-64 Apache helicopters last year and, along with many other Gulf states, has expressed interest in the Patriot missile system.

* Egypt ordered 46 F-16s at a cost of $1.6 billion and is thought to be interested in 46 more.

* The United Arab Emirates ordered 20 Apaches and took delivery on 78 155-mm guns manufactured by South Africa's Armscor.

* Saudi Arabia ordered $365 million worth of bombs and air-to-air missiles late last summer. The Saudis are also widely thought to still be interested in more F-15 fighters and hundreds of Patriot missiles, but the US has postponed the $14 billion second phase of the large Saudi Arabian arms package put together at the beginning of the Gulf crisis.

Russian officials in the United States for President Yeltsin's visit last week discussed ways of controlling the export of former Soviet arms with American counterparts.

Reportedly, Iran has obtained Su-24 bombers and T-72 tanks, as well as MIG-29s, from ex-Soviet sources.

US officials have also worried publicly about Iranian pursuit of nuclear technology, including the reported purchase of an electromagnetic isotope separator from China.

All this takes place as the US pushes the Middle East arms control initiative issued by President Bush last May, which among other things called for restraint on sales of "destabilizing" conventional weapons to the region.

At a meeting in London last October the top five weapons- supplier nations - the US, the then-USSR, Britain, China, and France - agreed that they would inform each other about conventional arms sales to the Mideast.

In a joint communique the suppliers also pledged to avoid weapons transfers that would "aggravate an existing armed conflict ... increase tension ... or introduce destabilizing military capabilities."

Follow-up talks were set for Washington in late January or early February. Intervening events, including the Middle East peace talks and the collapse of the Soviet Union, have forced those to be postponed for at least a month.

"It's simply the press of business. Nothing sinister about it. The talks are basically on track," says a US official.

Among issues still to be settled is when sale notifications will be made.

The US, which by law tells Congress of big proposed government-sponsored arms deals anyway, favors advance notification. Other nations don't want to disclose their weapons sales until after they are wrapped up.

Considering that one man's destabilizing weapon is another's legitimate defense need, and that arms dealers are still racking up big Persian Gulf sales, the whole supplier-agreement business could be seen as a meaningless enterprise.

But one arms transfer expert, Andrew Pierre of the Carnegie Endowment, doesn't take such a cynical view. "The fact that the five major suppliers got together to begin to discuss ways to restrict the quality and quantity of arms transfers is historic," says Mr. Pierre.

The last real try occurred back in 1950, when Britain, France, and the US signed an agreement to limit arms sales to Israel and Arab nations. But France sold more weapons than the agreement allowed, and the emergence of the Soviet Union as a supplier in 1955 blew the agreement apart. The point at which the suppliers will tell each other of sales, says Pierre, is in fact an important issue. Prior notification could force a seller "to justify its sale," he notes, while "after the fact makes it a rather emp ty exercise."

If the discussions continue, second-tier suppliers such as South Africa might be brought in to the talks at some point, notes Pierre, as well as the Middle East buyer nations themselves.

With Iraq removed as a major conventional weapons threat, at least for the time being, some question whether demand for weapons in the Middle East will rise.

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