An Edge in the Desert

A flood of new weapons -- from Iran to Saudi Arabia -- is dangerously changing the military dynamic in the Middle East.

Weapons are pouring into the Middle East at an unprecedented rate. The Pentagon recently announced that it would sell six tilt-rotor Osprey aircraft to Israel for $1.3 billion, American hardware (including Apache helicopters) is being rushed to the Iraqi government to help in its battle against al Qaeda, and Washington has also restored military aid to Egypt after a brief hiatus. But Uncle Sam isn't the only one delivering weapons to the region: Hezbollah has acquired parts of Russia's supersonic Yakhont missiles, which can strike vessels more than 75 miles off the coast of Lebanon, and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad continues to receive significant stockpiles of weapons from both Moscow and Tehran.

These may appear to be piecemeal acquisitions, but these and other new weapons are actively changing the military dynamic in the Middle East.

Historically, Israel is believed to have a Qualitative Military Edge (QME), which Congress defines as the "ability to counter and defeat any credible conventional military threat from any individual state or possible coalition of states or from non-state actors." The United States has vowed to ensure Israel's military edge -- but the Iranian nuclear program, coupled with the civil wars and political upheaval that has recently wracked the region, have all upended the way defense planners traditionally handicap the Middle East.

Determining QME is easier said than done. As one Israeli official recently explained to me, it is more of an "inexact science," determined by the "intersection of capability and intent." 

Assessing capability is the easier part of this equation. Drawing from open sources, one can count the type and quantity of weapons a country possesses. But even this task can quickly become murky. Take Syria, for example, where the regime has been so busy attacking its own people that some of its arms stockpiles have dwindled, along with its capabilities -- thereby necessitating the brutally makeshift "barrel bomb." This was also the case in Libya, which experienced its own internecine conflict in 2011. 

Amid the chaos of the so-called Arab Spring, intent is even harder to ascertain. If the international powers fail to achieve a final deal with Iran, is Israel prepared -- or even capable -- of destroying Tehran's illicit nuclear program by itself? Now that Turkey has sided with the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and even helps Iran evade sanctions, does that mean it would contemplate an armed conflict with the Israelis? 

War planners must also consider coalitions that would have been considered implausible a decade ago. Iran and Iraq, for example, were at each other's throats during Saddam Hussein's rule. Now with a Shiite-led government in Baghdad, they form a potentially powerful military bloc. If that were not strange enough, and if news reports are accurate, Tehran's war planners must now consider the unlikely (and uneasy) alliance between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

To help make sense of this changing calculus, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies has spent the last six months compiling data for a new website that helps visitors to visualize the complex balance of power the Middle East. The site allows users to compare open-source data on armaments and capabilities by country or by coalition. It also helps visitors understand how better weapons or capabilities provide a qualitative edge to a handful of actors in the region.

And while the site cannot gauge intangible factors like the professionalism of armed forces or a country's stomach for war, it has yielded some other interesting takeaways:

Non-state actors are more dangerous than ever.

Hezbollah and Hamas have a combined total of more than 60,000 missiles and rockets -- three times more than they had after the 2006 Lebanon war. That's probably more than Israel's missile defense systems, such as Iron Dome, can handle, meaning that Israeli civilians will once again be at risk in the event of another war with Lebanon or Hamas.

Hezbollah and Hamas's military advances can't solely be understood by the quantity of their weapons. The quality of their equipment is also improving: Hezbollah has reportedly received advanced anti-ship missiles smuggled from Syria into Lebanon, while Hamas has gotten its hands on man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS) smuggled in from Libya.

Drones are not just for America and Amazon.

Turkey has them, as do Israel, Morocco, the UAE, and Iran -- and Tehran claims that its drones are reverse-engineered from a crashed American UAV. Baghdad is next: This spring, the Iraqi military will receive 10 ScanEagle drones, which Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government claims it needs to counter a rising al Qaeda threat.

It is only a matter of time before other countries and non-state actors acquire this technology, which only a few years ago was reserved for elite Western militaries. Hezbollah has already started to explore the vulnerabilities that drones may expose in Israel's security -- and once armed drones enter the Middle East, it could change the military landscape entirely. 

Iraq is rearming.

Washington is investing heavily in its military ties with Baghdad, delivering an estimated $8 billion in weapons and related services since 2005. And the weapons sales have only increased in recent days: In addition to the 10 ScanEagle drones -- which cost roughly $100,000 apiece -- Baghdad received a shipment of 75 Hellfire missiles, which go for about $70,000 a pop.

These weapons are needed to help restore some semblance of order in the embattled Anbar province, which is now witnessing an al Qaeda resurgence. But even as Washington appears happy to sell Baghdad this advanced weaponry, there are signs the Iraqis are unprepared to use it on their own: According to the New York Times, the Hellfires will be "strapped beneath the wings of small Cessna turboprop planes, and fired at militant camps with the CIA secretly providing targeting assistance."

Such growing pains aside, it's only a matter of time before the Iraqi military gets its act together. And that is now a concern for Washington's lawmakers, who worry that the new Iraqi government has become an Iranian ally -- if not its proxy. Even if Iraq is now fighting al Qaeda, many on Capitol Hill are deeply ambivalent about handing Baghdad its most potent hardware. Notably, lawmakers have hit the brakes on plans to deliver Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon fighters and Boeing AH-64 Apache attack helicopters to Baghdad.

Turkey has a burgeoning arms industry.

This summer, officials from the ruling A.K. Party complained that the U.S. arms industry was the root of all evil. It was responsible, they said, for starting a long list of wars or failing to end others -- the implication was that America was willing to let the Middle East bleed if it meant its defense contractors could make a buck. But it's now Ankara that's building its very own military-industrial complex: Our research shows that Turkey's defense industry -- while still modest when compared to Washington's -- is growing at an impressive clip.

The Turks used to rely on Western-built equipment, but are now opting for domestically developed battle tanks, drones, and attack helicopters. They are also modernizing what they purchase, such as German-built Leopard tanks. Moreover, they are contributing to the production of the F-35 jet, an aircraft both Ankara and Jerusalem are planning to use as their primary fighters in the future. 

Saudi Arabia is on a shopping spree.

The Saudis are opening their checkbooks for high-end Western military equipment. The Saudi defense budget, the seventh largest in the world, has increased by 111 percent between 2003 and 2012. The build-up is designed to deter new threats originating out of Iran -- not Israel, for a change. 

And Riyadh's buying spree doesn't show any signs of trailing off in the years ahead -- particularly when it comes to air power. The Saudis are now waiting on orders for the first-rate Typhoon and F-15 fighters from Britain and the United States, and they are modernizing their existing F-15 and Tornado fleet.

The Israeli Air Force, by contrast, relies on F-15 and F-16 fighters that are more than a decade old, even with some spiffy modifications. In other words, for Israel, its vaunted qualitative edge in the air may now be diminishing.

There is a huge amount of data to comb through, which means that our conclusions come with a good number of caveats. But the message is clear: The balance of power in the Middle East is getting increasingly difficult to determine, and the changes rocking the region will not make it easier any time soon.

AFP/Getty Images


Germany, Inc. Heads to Tehran

Sanctions relief has corporations in Berlin salivating at the chance to make money in the Islamic Republic.

As the world's most powerful countries loosen the sanctions regime on Iran, European companies are looking to turn a profit from the international détente. Information uncovered by Foreign Policy shows that over 100 German companies are currently doing business in Iran -- and their European rivals are scrambling to catch up. As these corporations flood into Iran, their new investments could inject as much as $20 billion into the Iranian economy.

This has been one of the effects of the interim deal between Iran and the P5+1 countries (the U.N. Security Council's five permanent members plus Germany), which was signed in Geneva in November. In return for a freeze of some aspects of the Islamic Republic's nuclear program, the world powers suspended sanctions related to Iran's petrochemical exports, imports for its automotive sector, and its trade in precious metals. Core E.U. sanctions blocking imports of Iranian gas and oil remain in place, and restrictions on Iranian banks have not been completely suspended. But even though these restrictions are still in place -- and are nearly as stringent as U.S. sanctions -- the deal has nevertheless raised the possibility of a conflict-ending agreement that would remove all restrictions on doing business in Iran. As a result, many European companies are rushing to get in on the ground floor.

The White House has claimed that sanctions relief is only worth $7 billion, and U.S. officials have attempted to dissuade companies from beating a path to Iran's door. "Our message to all of these companies is the same: Iran is not open for business," Treasury Undersecretary David Cohen said recently. "Now is not the time to re-engage with Iran. That day may come, but it's not today."

European businesses, however, aren't listening -- and Germany, Iran's most important trade partner within the European Union, is taking the lead. German businesses never really left Iran: Even after the E.U. imposed sweeping oil and gas sanctions on Iran, Germany exported goods valued at $3.4 billion there in 2012, and exports totaled $1.8 billion in between January and September 2013.

These "made in Germany" goods are not Birkenstock sandals and gummy bears, but engineering equipment critical to Iran's infrastructure. A confidential booklet published by the Tehran-based German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce in late 2012, and obtained by Foreign Policy, lists 136 German companies active in the Islamic Republic. The chamber's work is designed to assist companies' entry into the Iranian market "with advice and practical support," according to the booklet. The large number of businesses it lists highlights the vital role German enterprise continues to play in Iran, even after the imposition of sweeping sanctions in 2010.

Daniel Bernbeck, director of the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce, has long been an energetic cheerleader of boosting business with the Islamic Republic. He sparked controversy in the wake of the allegedly doctored 2009 Iranian presidential election, saying that he saw "no moral question here at all" in conducting business during the period of authoritarian repression.

German businesses have supplied the Islamic Republic with the sort of specialized equipment needed for large industrial projects. For example, BOMAFA, a company headquartered in the gritty industrial city of Bochum, delivers high-tech valves to conventional areas of the Iranian economy, according to a spokesman. GEMÜ, an engineering company specializing in valves and measurement systems, was also cited on the German-Iranian Chamber of Industry and Commerce's trade list. A spokeswoman, Eva Zink, told me that the company refuses to provide any information about its work in Iran.

Other German businesses have helped Iran with massive urban infrastructure projects that the Islamic Republic may have lacked the capacity to handle on its own. Herrenknecht, a tunnel-boring machine supplier, has worked in Iran on the construction of metro lines, as well as on sewage and water projects. According to a company spokeswoman, Herrenknecht's sales in Iran totaled roughly $680,000 in 2013.

German officials have tried to cool some of the corporate enthusiasm about doing business in Iran, but have had no more success than their colleagues in Washington. Chancellor Angela Merkel implemented a nonbinding "discouragement" policy meant to curtail high-visibility German-Iranian trade events and commercial deals with Iran. However, it has had little effect: Promoting business with Iran is now respectable in the Federal Republic.

Some politicians have even attempted to play matchmaker between German businesses and Tehran -- and in the process, have gotten themselves entangled with some unsavory characters. In late January, Berlin's former mayor, Walter Momper, moderated an event at the Iranian Embassy under the sponsorship of "Berlin Business Talks," which focused on developing business contacts on an informal level. Iranian state media later reported that Momper called for the complete lifting of sanctions on Iran.

In holding the event at the Iranian Embassy, however, Momper and German businessmen were rubbing elbows with an Iranian diplomat with a checkered past. Iran's ambassador to Germany, Ali Reza Sheikh Attar, was appointed by former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and has been sharply criticized by Iranian dissidents for his unconditional loyalty to the hard-line politician. Iranian Kurdish groups have also accused him of responsibility for the massacre of Kurds during his tenure as governor of Kurdistan and West Azerbaijan provinces.

German companies aren't alone within the E.U. in rushing to do business with Iran. Even the Netherlands, a rare European country that has spoken out vocally against Tehran's human rights abuses, is getting in on the game. In 2011, the Netherlands withdrew its ambassador after Iran hanged Zahra Bahrami, an Iranian-Dutch woman involved in the Green Movement protests. The Dutch foreign minister, meanwhile, denounced the execution as a "shocking act by a barbaric regime."

By 2014, however, all that seemed to have been forgotten. The Dutch ambassador to Iran, Jos Douma, tweeted in mid-January that he participated in "speeddate sessions to meet business[es] interested in Iran." One topic of discussion was the export of spare parts to Iran's aviation and agriculture industries. While Douma explained that sanctions were still in place, he wrote that old business hands were "cautiously optimistic" about opportunities there.

Iran's energy industry, while still under tight sanctions, represents a potential gold mine for European countries. And companies are already exploring how they might enter this sector: Royal Dutch Shell, Italy's Eni oil and gas company, and the giant Austrian oil and gas company OMV met with Iran's oil minister in Vienna in December to discuss potential future investments in developing Iran's oil fields.

That same month, Vienna sent a delegation from the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (WKÖ), which represents the interests of Austrian businesses, to Iran. The WKÖ meeting appears to be Austria's first large-scale contact with the Islamic Republic in a number of years. And Vienna seems determined to get its share of Iranian business: According to the Austrian daily Kurier, Richard Schenz, a vice president of WKÖ, announced in January, "There is no reason to adhere to U.S. laws" regarding trade with Iran.

France is also strengthening its economic relationship with Iran. The Wall Street Journal confirmed that representatives of some of the largest companies in Paris will travel to Iran in early February to discuss possible new business ties. The companies that are sending representatives include GDF Suez, an electric utility company; Alstom, a power generation and transport company; Safran, an aerospace and defense firm; French automakers PSA Peugeot Citroën and Renault; and BNP Paribas, a financial services company.

Considerable obstacles still remain for European businesses hoping to make a buck in Iran. In addition to the sanctions still in place on Iran, the current window of opportunity could slam shut in six short months -- when the interim agreement signed in Geneva expires -- if there is no comprehensive deal over Iran's nuclear program. But European companies' willingness to invest considerable time and resources in Iran, despite the risk, is a sign of their intense interest in turning the current rapprochement into a permanent reality.

Iranian officials, meanwhile, are crowing about finding a partner that provides them with a path to overcome their economic underdevelopment, and political isolation.

"Right now many European companies have contacted Iranian firms and expressed their willingness for the expansion of mutual cooperation," Iranian First Vice President Eshaq Jahangiri said recently. "Iran is in a situation in the region and on the international arena that obstacles to its development should be removed."

Photo: Miguel Villagran/Getty Images