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Regional Outlook : For the Middle East, Arms Control Is No Longer Unthinkable : Poison gas, ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons have raised the stakes to unprecedented heights. This balance of terror may one day push old enemies into a new willingness to talk.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Around a green baize table somewhere in neutral Europe huddle a dozen of the Middle East’s most implacable enemies.

Sitting rigidly in his uniform is Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Across the way, a seemingly perpetual scowl on his face, is Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. Syrian President Hafez Assad glances suspiciously from one dangerous adversary to the other. Both Iranian President Hashemi Rafsanjani and Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi stand out in their long, flowing robes and distinctive headgear.

This most extraordinary collection of Middle East leaders has gathered to talk about destroying their nuclear bombs, poison gas and ballistic missiles. Given the balance of terror that has evolved in the region, they see little choice. . . .

Such a meeting would have been totally unthinkable a few years ago, and it is still decidedly a long shot in a region scarred by generations of conflict, hatred and suspicion. But for the first time ever, the prospect of Middle East arms control is being seriously discussed from Baghdad to Tel Aviv to Washington.

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The message came recently from a most unlikely figure: Iraq’s usually belligerent President Hussein. Almost overlooked in the bluster of his threat to destroy “half of Israel” with chemical weapons was a suggestion by Hussein last month that the bitterly antagonistic nations of the Middle East should begin negotiations to rid the region of weapons of mass destruction.

“Arms control is an idea whose time clearly has come,” a State Department official said recently. “Everyone is aware of the missile proliferation and the chemical warfare proliferation. People are ready to grapple with the issue. If it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be an issue.”

In an area racked by warfare for thousands of years, technology has run amok. The weapons available to the region’s disputatious leaders have become far more deadly than they used to be. The spread of ballistic missiles capable of sending nuclear or chemical warheads to almost any target in the compact region has reduced warning times and increased the danger of war by accident.

“The offense is getting ahead of the defense,” said Samuel W. Lewis, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and now president of the U.S. Institute of Peace. “When you have some days of warning time to watch the enemy’s buildup and to consult coolly about the risks, the situation is different from the one where, without any obvious preparation, someone can just launch a battery of missiles.

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“This means there is a greater temptation to launch a preemptive strike,” he said.

Israel, Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Iran all have arsenals of ballistic missiles. Israel is known to have both nuclear and chemical weapons. Iraq has chemical weapons and could have nuclear weapons within a decade. Syria has long possessed poison gas. Egypt is believed to have revived a long-dormant chemical weapons program. Iran has at least the potential for producing chemical weapons.

In addition, Libya, where the mercurial Kadafi adds an element of instability, has built a poison gas plant and may be producing deadly chemicals.

The arms race is both dangerous and expensive. It was just such a combination of terror and cost that drove the United States and the Soviet Union to the arms control table 20 years ago. But the situation is far more complex in the Middle East, where hatreds are deeper and tempers are shorter.

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Unlike the Washington-Moscow confrontation, the Middle East does not divide easily into two competing camps that have to deal only with each other. Israel and Iraq are bitter enemies, with the most potent military forces. But they would never reduce their weaponry without complementary steps by other antagonists in the region.

Both Israel and Iraq have such bad relations with Syria, for example, that the possibility of armed confrontation with that country is always present. Also, Iraq and non-Arab Iran remain mortal enemies despite the uneasy 1988 cease-fire in their eight-year war. Israel’s relations with Jordan, while currently stable, could erupt into conflict at any time. And Kadafi adds a dangerous joker to the pack.

Nevertheless, if Israel and Iraq agreed to arms control talks, the rest of the region would probably go along--at least as far as the negotiating table. And, right now, those two nations may have the most to gain, both militarily and politically, from such a conference.

“Israel and Iraq, the two most technologically advanced powers, have become fearful of each other’s potential,” said Geoffrey Kemp, a White House expert on the Middle East during the Reagan Administration who is now a senior associate of the Carnegie Foundation for International Peace in Washington. “This coincidence of fears in Israel and Iraq leads to a dangerous situation. The risk of confrontation by miscalculation cannot be ruled out.”

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Abdul Rahman M. Jamil, press counselor of the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, said Iraq developed its chemical arsenal to prevent Israel from repeating its 1981 bombing raid on the Osirak nuclear facility near Baghdad, an attack that non-governmental experts now believe set back Iraq’s nuclear weapons program by a decade or more.

Now, he said, Iraq is prepared to use its chemical arsenal as a bargaining chip to trade for Israel’s nuclear weaponry.

“It’s cheaper to go for peace than to spend billions of dollars on weapons,” Jamil said.

So far, the Israeli government has shown no interest in such a bargain. But Israeli defense experts have begun serious discussions of arms control in recent months, reflecting a growing concern that the arms race has grown out of control.

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“The longer it takes, the more difficult it is going to be and the more danger (that) we have a catastrophe before then,” said Gerald Steinberg, a defense analyst at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv. “So while arms control may seem like a very unlikely bet now, survival not just for the Middle East but for the rest of the world may be at stake.”

From Israel’s standpoint, Steinberg said, arms control negotiations would have one major diplomatic benefit--Arab governments would have to deal directly with Israel.

“The issue of recognition, legitimization, acceptance for the Jewish people in the Jewish home, something that the Arab states have denied for over five decades, is going to be forced to the surface by the tremendous dangers of the spread of nuclear and chemical weapons and missiles,” he said. “There is no way around it.”

Egypt is the only Arab government to extend diplomatic recognition to Israel. For years, a succession of Israeli governments have made it a prime objective to regularize relations with other Arab states.

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In the past, however, many Israelis have argued that Israel needs its nuclear umbrella to offset the numerical advantage of the Arab states. From Israel’s point of view, the Iraqi plan, which has been endorsed by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, would be a step in the wrong direction because it would eliminate only nuclear and chemical weapons while leaving conventional armies untouched.

However, U.S. experts maintain that despite the Arab advantage in population, Israel has a highly skilled military force that would be able to turn back any attack in the foreseeable future without having to resort to nuclear or chemical weapons. These experts say Iraq, too, has a strong conventional force that can meet its defense needs without missiles or poison gas.

Nevertheless, the prospects of beginning negotiations over sophisticated weapons of mass destruction may depend on the outcome of attempts--apparently deadlocked--to make peace between Israel and the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, who are armed chiefly with rocks and gasoline-filled bottles.

“A comprehensive ban on weapons of mass destruction will be very difficult to achieve in the absence of solutions to longstanding regional conflicts,” the State Department said in a formal statement issued last week. “However, we believe it is important to pursue agreement on approaches to curbing weapons proliferation that could win support of all parties.”

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That Middle East arms control is being seriously discussed at all is a symptom of the decline of U.S. and Soviet influence in the region and a dramatization of the failure of the superpowers’ policy to stem the proliferation of modern weapons.

In earlier years, Washington and Moscow could control the flow of arms to the Middle East because the nations of the region relied on U.S. and Soviet weaponry. The nations still import a lot of arms, but some of them have developed domestic arms industries as well.

“We have already reached the point where it is very hard to bring a country to its knees by an agreement between a few external suppliers to stop the flow of arms,” said William B. Quandt, a National Security Council expert on the Middle East in the Carter Administration who is now a senior fellow of the Brookings Institution in Washington.

“Countries like Iran and Iraq, of necessity, learned how to do much more on their own,” he said. “That is a lesson that hasn’t been lost on the others. Unfortunately, chemical weapons are quite easy to produce domestically.”

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Both Israel and Iraq have developed locally produced missiles. Israel has a domestic nuclear weapons program and Iraq is thought to be five to 10 years away from developing one.

“No matter how stringent the export controls, Iraq will get the bomb,” said Seth Carus, a fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “We may be able to slow them down a bit, but the Iraqi ability to penetrate Western technology is much greater than the West’s ability to prevent it.”

As was the case in the early days of U.S.-Soviet negotiations, the arms control process is severely hampered by secrecy on all sides. Although Hussein has bragged of his chemical weapons and missile delivery systems, he has not revealed the size of his arsenals. Israel has confirmed its missile capability but has never admitted possessing either nuclear or chemical weapons. Syria and Egypt also refuse to talk about their non-conventional arsenals.

Consequently, while Western analysts have little doubt about the broad outlines of the Middle East arms race, they cannot agree on an exact count of weapons for any of the countries.

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Arms for the Mideast: The Foreign Pipeline

Middle Eastern nations that have weaponry either being delivered or on order from other countries . (* Supplier: Weapon)

Arms for Syria * China: Surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) * Soviet Union: Jet fighters, rocket launchers, infantry combat vehicles, tanks, SAMs, AAMs, anti-missiles, SSMs, submarines, corvettes

Arms for Libya * Brazil: Rocket launchers, radar, SSMs. * Yugoslavia: Fast-attack craft

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Arms for Egypt * Argentina: SSMs * France: Jet fighters * Italy: SAMs * Spain: Combat vehicles * United States: Troop transports, jet fighters, helicopters, tanks, armored personnel carriers (APCs), systems, SAMs, air-to-surface missiles (ASMs), air-to-air missiles (AAMs), anti-tank missiles

Arms for Israel * West Germany: Submarines * United States: Jet fighters, ShShMs, corvettes

Arms for Saudi Arabia * Brazil: Rocket systems, armored cars, radars * France: Anti-aircraft guns, armored cars, SAMs, SShMs * Indonesia: Transports * Spain: Transports, infantry combat vehicles * Britain: Jet fighters, anti-radar missiles, air-to-ship missiles (AShMs), AAMs * United States: Transports, airborne early-warning systems, jet fighters, tanker/transports, transports, infantry combat vehicles, radars, AShMs, AAMs, anti-tank missiles

Arms for Iran * China: Jet fighters, tanks, APCs, rocket launchers, ship-to-ship missiles (ShShMs), surface-to-missiles (SShMs), anti-tank missiles, SAMs, AAMs * Czechoslovakia: Infantry combat vehicles, APCs * North Korea: Tanks, artillery * Britain: Radar

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Arms for Iraq * Brazil: Rocket launchers, armored cars, radar, SSMs * China: Bombers, tanks, APCs, artillery, ASMs, ShShMs, SShMs * Czechoslovakia: Infantry combat vehicles * Egypt: Helicopters, artillery, rocket launchers, SAMs * France: Jet fighters, SAMs, ASMs, anti-radar missiles, anti-tank missiles * Italy: Helicopters, AAMs, ShShMs, frigates, corvettes * South Africa: Artillery * Soviet Union: Artillery, rocket launchers, tanks, SSMs

Arms for Jordan * France: Helicopters, jet fighters, AAMs * Iraq: Tanks, APCs * Britain: Combat aircraft, radar, patrol craft * United States: Radar * Soviet Union: SAMs

Source: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute Yearbook, 1989


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