by Thalif Deen
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS --
U.S. "war" against global terrorism threatens to trigger a new arms race in the Middle East and Asia, say defense analysts.
Oman already has chalked up a major munitions purchase under Washington's new policy of unrestricted arms sales and military assistance to countries willing to join its coalition against suspected terrorists.
"Once again, it appears that U.S. weapons transfers are being used as party favors, to reward countries that do our bidding," says Natalie Goldring, executive director of the disarmament program at the University of Maryland.
She describes as "unfortunate" the U.S. decision earlier this month to sell $1.1 billion worth of sophisticated weapons to the sultanate.
"Given that our pilots are likely to face U.S. weapons that we transferred to the region in previous years, you'd think we'd be more careful," she says.
"We are already facing the possibility that the Taliban will use our own weapons against us," she adds. "And we think the answer is: transfer more weapons to this region, with less oversight?"
The arms package to Oman includes 12 F-16 C/D advanced fighter jets, 10 anti-aircraft air-to-air medium range anti-aircraft (AMRAAM) missiles, 10 Sidewinder missiles, 20 anti-ship Harpoon missiles and new radar equipment.
"The proposed sale will contribute to the foreign policy and national security of the U.S. by helping to improve the security of a friendly country," the Pentagon says in a statement.
The defence department also says the sale will "strengthen Oman as a coalition partner" by enhancing cooperation with the United States and "other coalition forces in the region."
Since Washington has reached agreements with Pakistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Uzbekistan -- to either use their airfields or overfly their territories during military strikes against Afghanistan -- it is expected to reciprocate by providing unrestricted arms and military assistance to all of these countries.
The United States is Saudi Arabia's largest arms supplier, with more than $2 billion in sales projected for this year. This year's sales are estimated at $375 million to Turkey and $1.7 million to Uzbekistan.
Washington has lifted its ban on arms sales to Pakistan, paving the way for fresh military supplies to Islamabad.
Erik Floden, editor of the Washington-based Arms Trade News, says "lifting all restrictions on U.S. arms exports to any country willing to provide rhetorical support for the war against terrorism may provide human rights violators the equipment to imprison, torture or kill their own people."
Arms sales may seem poised to increase, he adds, but the region's arms race has been under way "since the days when we supplied weapons and training to Iraq and Iran."
Before the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, the United States was the largest single supplier of arms to Tehran. During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Washington covertly supplied arms and military assistance to Iraq.
The Middle East continues to the largest regional market for weapons, according to Floden.
The U.S. Congressional Research Service (CRS) recently reported that the Middle East accounted for 74.8 percent of all U.S. arms transfer agreements to developing nations during 1993-1996, or about $46 billion worth of business. In 1997-2000, the region accounted for 47.2 percent of all arms agreements, or about $38.4 billion.
Oman, which has traditionally depended on British jet fighters, is for the first time being armed with American combat aircraft. U.S.-built F-16 fighters also are in service in Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, all longstanding U.S. allies.
Last year, Oman announced plans to spend an average of about $2.2 billion on defense annually through 2005, up from an average of about $1.7 billion through 1999.
Russia and Iran traditional supporters of the Northern Alliance opposition in Afghanistan, announced last week they would provide additional arms and military aid to the rebel group as it intensifies its fight against the Taliban regime.
The Russians, in turn, signed a $300 million weapons agreement to provide military hardware to Iran, making it the third largest customer for Russian arms after and India.
According to declarations made by Iran to the annual U.N. Arms Register, the Russians already have provided Tehran with 94 air-to-air missiles and missile launchers, more than 100 T-72 and T-76 battle tanks, more than 80 BMP-2 armored combat vehicles, and two 140mm artillery systems.
Additionally, Russia has provided Iran with three Kilo class diesel-electric submarines at a cost of $450 million.
China has provided Iran with some 25 fighter aircraft, five warships, more than 200 HY-2 Silkworm missiles, and unspecified quantities of 122mm and 130mm field guns.
Goldring says that Russia has had a continuing arms relationship with Iran but halted arms deals for several years starting in 1995, at U.S. insistence.
"My guess is that the Russians felt they didn't get much in return for this pause. There was no evidence of reciprocal U.S. restraint," she says.
The timing of the latest agreement between Russia and Iran may be a coincidence, she adds, because the arms deal had been under consideration since at least last year.
The deal is important, however, "because it represents a resumption of the arms transfer relationship between these two countries" and could include advanced fighter planes, air defense systems, and missiles.
October 22, 2001 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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