Amherst, Mass. Without the mighty arsenal of sophisticated weapons supplied to Iraq over the past decade -- mostly by permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Saddam Hussein would be little more than a footnote to history. Instead, he is about to go down as the author of a chapter that President George Bush has compared in significance to that of World War II.
The difference in Mr. Hussein's fate has been provided by the $46.7 billion worth of arms and military equipment that Iraq was able to purchase from foreign suppliers between 1981 and 1988 -- the largest accumulation ever of modern weapons by a Third World country.
Included in this largess were some 2,300 modern Soviet and Chinese tanks, 64 Mirage F-1 fighters armed with deadly Exocet missiles, 2,650 armored personnel carriers, and 350 Scud-B ballistic missiles -- the weapons that have rained terror, death and destruction on Israel and threatened Saudi Arabia in recent days.
The United States has not sold arms to Iraq, but has provided critical scientific and technical capabilities that have been used in Iraq's own weapons development programs.
Instead of attempting to curtail the militarization of the region, the Bush administration has, since the August 2 invasion of Kuwait, decided to proceed with a new round of multibillion-dollar sales to friendly nations in the region, especially to Saudi Arabia and Israel. With French and British arms merchants also flocking to the Mideast, it appears that 1990 and 1991 will break all existing records for arms sales to the region.
The likely outcome of these new arms transfers will not be, as the Bush administration has maintained, to deter Iraqi aggression. After all, most of the new orders will not be delivered for another year or more. Rather, the result will be prolonged regional tensions and a heightened risk of future conflicts well after the current war is ended.
Responsibility for creating the Mideast powder keg -- or at least for providing the dynamite -- rests with a handful of major arms exporting nations, including all of the Big Five permanent members of the Security Council, which voted to sanction the U.S.-led war against Iraq.
Four-fifths of Iraq's present arsenal came from just three of the Big Five -- the Soviet Union, China and France, according to Maj. Britt Theorin, chairman of the Swedish Disarmament Commission. ''It is an irony of history that weapons in Iraq's arsenal are now turned against their suppliers,'' he told delegates to the U.N. Conference on Disarmament on January 21.
There probably is no escape from this pattern if the major powers continue to view arms exports as tools of diplomatic convenience in their quest for political advantage. This is why any meaningful long-term settlement in the gulf include a comprehensive regional arms control agreement.
Six measures could produce significant momentum toward global security:
* Reconvene the CATT talks. The U.S.-Soviet Conventional Arms Transfer Talks of 1977-78 reached agreement on the broad outlines of a policy that would restrain the trade in the most threatening conventional weapons. The talks ended when the Cold War heated up.
The two leading arms sellers should resume these talks and agree to set a mutual ceiling on arms transfers (perhaps $8 billion to $10 billion each per year) while pledging to negotiate lower levels in subsequent talks.
They should also agree to ban or restrict the sale of particularly inhumane and destabilizing weapons such as wide-area cluster bombs, fuel-air explosives, incendiary devices, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, cruise missiles and long-range bombers.
* Expand and enhance the MTCR. The Missile Technology Control Regime, established in 1987 to restrict Western exports of ballistic missile technology, needs to be expanded to include important non-signatories, such as the Soviet Union, Argentina, Brazil and China. It must also be extended to limit transfers of technology used in developing missiles for space exploration, most of which can be converted to military use.
* When the gulf war is resolved, efforts should be made to convene a U.N.- sponsored Mideast conference on nuclear and chemical weapons disarmament. All nations in the region should agree to abide by the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the proposed Chemical Weapons Convention.
* When the crisis is over, the United Nations should develop an array of trade and economic sanctions, similar to the currently effective sanctions against Iraq, to apply against nations that persist in developing nuclear weapons.
* Restrict aid to nations developing domestic arms industries. Some of the more technologically developed Third World nations have developed elaborate military-industrial complexes modeled on those of the United States and other major weapons producers. These contribute to the worldwide diffusion of conventional weapons.
* Establish an international clearing house for intelligence on clandestine arms technology transfers. Such a clearing house jTC could track suspicious ''front'' operations and black-market channels in target countries and inform police and military authorities of any apparent wrongdoing.
These six measures could set the stage for a comprehensive solution to the Middle East's long-standing political and security concerns.
Michael Klare is an associate professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College. He is the author of ''American Arms Supermarket.''