A Middle Eastern arms race could be brewing according to Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs. Zarif, the face of Tehran’s foreign affairs, gave an interview with Al Jazeera on Monday in which he contemplated the current levels of military spending by neighboring states while taking into consideration current geopolitical issues that have seen increased involvement of western powers.
Zarif’s main point fixated on the spending levels of his nation contrasted with that of the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The divide between Iran and states like Saudi Arabia and the UAE stretches back to the death of Prophet Mohammad, after which there was a split in who would be the rightful successor. This conflict saw the rise of two opposing sects of Islam, each following a different leader: Shia (Iran) and Sunni (UAE and Saudi Arabia, among others).
Fast-forward to modern times, and Iran stands largely on its own, although China and Russia are common vocal allies. The United States and its allies have largely backed two major powers within the region, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and both are incredibly opposed to Tehran. It is this support with particular regard to weapons sales that Zarif blames for a potential arms race breakout.
“Let’s make a comparison; Iran spent last year $16 billion on all its military with almost one million people in the army,” Zarif stated. “The UAE with a total population of one million spent $22 billion, Saudi Arabia spent $87 billion.”
He also made a point of America’s contribution to the region: $50 billion worth of weapons sales. US President Donald Trump appeared very eager to drum up more business with Riyadh when Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman toured the US. During a White House Meeting, the American leader spent a majority of the press conference boasting about selling more arms to Riyadh and even had graphs illustrating the increased revenue for the US Supposedly, this would lead to an increase in jobs as well, although analysts dispute those claims.
Deploying weapons to the Middle East is nothing new and Trump is not the first president to do so, even if he is the first to lament lavishly on the weapons agreements. However, he is the first to begin the transferring nuclear expertise to an Arab state. His administration has approved seven permits authorizing American companies to lend nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. In a deliberate and clear attempt to keep these permits under the radar, the White House did not broadcast them with the same flair that Trump praised weapons purchases, most likely because they knew the backlash that would come from it.
That backlash came, but the US Senate is far from having a veto-proof majority when it rebukes Trump. The Yemen Civil War, murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, arms sales, and now nuclear technology transfer to Riyadh have turned many in Washington against Trump on the issue of the support of Saudi Arabia in particular, yet they seem powerless to a president who simply does whatever he pleases.
When it comes to Saudi Arabia and Iran, the shift to nuclear could have irreversible consequences. By bypassing the legislature and perhaps even advisors, Trump’s support of a nuclear Saudi Arabia could very well push Iran to develop its own program. It is already much farther along than Saudi Arabia and could be under a year away from having a nuclear warhead. It was bad enough that Trump walked out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, but by giving Tehran more reasons to pursue nuclear weapons, he is drastically raising the probability of more conflict in the region. As a businessman who has time and time again emphasized the value of weapon sales, perhaps this is what the American president desires: more war and conflict are good for American weapon manufacturers.
As the US continues to arm Iran’s regional enemies, to say nothing of Israel’s suspected nuclear stockpile, Washington is also designing a naval operation to secure the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf for oil shipments. Naturally, Iran is heavily opposed to the idea of an increased US military presence directly off its coast and some European allies have even admitted to the potential for the increased tension as a result. Germany backed out of Operation Sentinel and, lacking European support, the US has reportedly turned to Israel to join the maritime strategy.
The idea of Israel patrolling waters next to Iran is entirely unacceptable to Zarif and would most certainly lead to military confrontations. Israel is already happy to boast about killing Iranian militias in Syria and Iraq, so it has no qualms about going to war against Tehran. The combined threat of Israel in the Strait of Hormuz, nuclear technology going to Saudi Arabia, and its regional adversaries outspending it on weapons create a situation which backs Iran into a corner. With the walls closing in, Tehran may have no choice but to increase its own stockpiles and possibly go nuclear, a capability that the UAE and Saudi Arabia do not yet have.
“If you are talking about threats coming from the region, the threats are coming from the US and its allies who are pouring weapons in the region, making it a tinderbox ready to blow up,” Zarif said.
That tinderbox may be great for the American military-industrial complex, but will likely guarantee future Middle Eastern conflicts. Right now, a war between Israel and Iran, Iran and Saudi Arabia, or a combination of the two grows more likely as US allies continue to provoke it.