WASHINGTON -- Major-power talks to curb the Middle East arms race open in Paris this week against a seemingly contradictory backdrop of massive post-Gulf war U.S. arms sales to the region and strenuous efforts by competitor countries to get or keep their share of the action.
The talks involving the United States, Soviet Union, China, Britain and France are designed to curb what the United States calls "destabilizing" sales of conventional weapons to the Middle East and to block the further spread of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.
The negotiators say that they hope to establish mechanisms to share information about arms deals and head off ones that threaten stability.
But the surge of recent sales in the region preceding the meeting in Paris has aroused some cynicism among observers such as Lee Feinstein, assistant director for research at the Arms Control Association.
Noting that the participants at this week's Paris talks control the bulk of Middle East arms sales, he anticipates little altruism at the meeting. "They all want to be in on the writing of new rules so they don't lose any business," he says.
Soon after President Bush's late-May arms-control initiative for the Middle East, the Pentagon announced that the United States would provide 10 used F-15 fighter jets to Israel and that it had made a $682 million deal with the United Arab Emirates that includes 20 attack helicopters and 620 Hellfire missiles.
In March, the United States pledged to provide $1.6 billion worth of arms to Egypt, including 46 F-16 fighter planes.
Still in prospect, pending a security review by the administration, is the second phase of a multibillion-dollar package of planes, tanks and other arms for Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states.
The Bush administration has rejected the idea of sponsoring a moratorium on arms sales, citing Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in arguing that U.S. allies should "acquire the conventional capabilities they legitimately need to deter and defend against military aggression."
Strengthening regional forces reduces the likelihood that the United States will have to defend its friends, the administration argues. But if U.S. help is needed, the presence of U.S.-supplied equipment makes it easier for the Americans to operate jointly with the regional forces.
While the United States is engaged in the sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of arms to Middle East states, other major weapons-supplying nations have been "tripping all over themselves" to get a share of the action, a senior State Department official told Congress recently.
"We found very high-level delegations from all of the other major arms suppliers everywhere we went in the Middle East, selling arms and concluding deals," said Richard Clarke, assistant secretary of state for politico-military affairs.
Mr. Clarke testified June 27 that if the United States halted
weapons sales, not only would its influence in the region plummet, but "everyone else would sell."
Another U.S. official said that any deals now coming to fruition might have been set in motion before the gulf war. But previous deals might now be expanded, he said.
The Saudis, he noted, have long-standing agreements with the British for aircraft and with the French for naval equipment. The ,, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which has agreed to purchase French Mirage jets, "are both looking at reassessing their equipment needs," he said.
The journal Aerospace Daily quoted the chairman of the British company Vickers PLC as anticipating Middle East orders -- most likely from the gulf states -- worth up to $6.5 billion for the Challenger 2 main battle tank.
Syria recently acknowledged getting Scud missiles and is believed to be using at least part of a $2 billion payment from Saudi Arabia to modernize its forces. That payment could enable it to resume purchases from the Soviet Union, which is starved for currency.
Among the more significant recent developments has been the delivery of Soviet weaponry to Iran, which again is tapping its oil revenues to rebuild its military after the Iran-Iraq war.
Critics of the administration's refusal to take a stronger lead in curbing the flow of conventional arms to the Middle East are dubious about the outcome of this week's talks.
Representative Howard L. Berman, D-Calif. says the administration's "good and strong" proposals to curb weapons of mass destruction in the region are undermined by sales of conventional weapons.
One U.S. officials says the arms race is rooted in regional political problems and that until those problems are addressed, progress on military restraints will amount at best to a "holding operation."
But there are incentives for some of the Middle East states to establish international guidelines, U.S. and other experts say:
* Destruction of much of Iraq's offensive potential has reduced its neighbors' need to expand their defensive arsenals. Iraq effectively has been removed as a purchaser.
* Iraqi Scud missile attacks and the threat of chemical weapons have renewed determination to curb weapons of mass destruction.
* The Saudis are squeezed for cash, and Jordan, Egypt and Yemen are in serious financial straits.
* The Soviet Union is no longer able or willing to grant concessionary terms to clients in the region.
"Now is as good a time as any to talk about ways to put a governor on this trade in the region," says Richard F. Grimmett, a defense analyst at the Congressional Research Service.