Some truths are best left unsaid, particularly in polite company. So it came as somewhat of a surprise when an analyst at Deutsche Bank posed the following question to Marillyn Hewson, the CEO of Lockheed Martin, in a recent conference call with investors: “If the U.S. does move toward the normalization with Iran over nuclear activities, does that in any way impede what you see as progress in the foreign military sales front there?” The question carries additional weight now that Iran has agreed to a framework deal that would curb its nuclear activities for the next decade and beyond.
The implication of the analyst’s question – which was uncovered by Lee Fang, a journalist at The Intercept – is that a reduction of tensions in the Middle East could be bad news for Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest arms-producing corporation.
Hewson didn’t accept the specific idea that a deal with Iran would be bad for business, but she did embrace the notion that turbulence makes it easier to sell arms, noting that “there are plenty of threats in the region.” To underscore her point, Hewson asserted that “even if there is some sort of deal with Iran, there is volatility all around the region.” She also suggested that “you could take that argument to the Asia-Pacific region, which is also a growth area for us.”
It may come as no surprise that war and the threat of war drive the global arms market. But what is good news for Lockheed Martin is bad news for America and the world. The last thing that is needed in the Middle East and North Africa – a region that now hosts wars in Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen – is to pour more fire on the flames in the form of stepped-up arms sales. Unfortunately, one could argue that the world’s major exporters of weapons are already doing that.
There is plenty of blame to go around. The historic role of Russia and Iran in supplying armaments to Syria has enabled the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad to engage in a campaign of senseless slaughter that shows no signs of letting up.
The United States has poured tens of billions of dollars in weaponry into the Persian Gulf during the Obama administration, setting new records for arms dealing in the process. The bulk of the arms have gone to Saudi Arabia, which has used them to help put down the democracy movement in Bahrain, not to mention in its current bombing campaign in Yemen, which has already caused needless civilian deaths.
The United Kingdom has a decades-long role as a major arms supplier to the Saudi regime as well. And France is the primary arms supplier to Qatar, and has struck deals with the majority of Persian Gulf nations.
Arms corporations like BAE Systems, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin press their governments to secure these sales, but they appear to be pushing on an open door. It is now routine for presidents, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and ministers of defense to lobby for their home nation’s arms suppliers during trips to the Middle East, all the while assuring us that their weapons are the ones that will bring stability, not stoke conflict.
But the truth is that no one can predict how a given weapons system will be used once it has been transferred – or where it will end up. The Islamic State (also known as ISIL or ISIS) has captured large quantities of U.S. weaponry that was originally given to Iraqi security forces. The Pentagon has acknowledged that $500 million in U.S. arms have gone missing in Yemen. And whatever their position on the war itself, none of Saudi Arabia’s diverse group of suppliers could have predicted its current intervention in Yemen – nor do they know where it will lead.
As difficult as it may be to accomplish, efforts should be made to curb, not accelerate, the flow of weapons to areas of conflict. Despite the fact that the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (A.T.T.) entered into force in December 2014, the global weapons trade continues to rise.
The A.T.T. calls for signatories to consider, before agreeing to sell weapons to a given country, factors such as whether the recipient nation is likely to commit genocide or major human rights abuses. It has been signed by 130 states, including major suppliers like the United States, the United Kingdom, and France. Key exporting nations like Russia and China, however, have yet to endorse the treaty.
If world leaders were to live up to the principles embodied in the A.T.T., it would be far easier to roll back the wars in the Middle East and create space for diplomatic initiatives to address the region’s complex security problems. That might be bad news for arms manufacturers, but it would be good news for the rest of us.