The Buzz

Revealed: Why the Middle East Is Headed Towards a Lethal Missile Race

Hours after the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal, President Barack Obama reiterated the administration’s policy of working with the Gulf Cooperation Council to integrate the region’s disparate anti-missile defense systems. The system aims to defend against Iran’s formidable arsenal of ballistic missiles and encourage the further integration of Gulf Arab military forces. This week, John Kerry met with various Arab officials, in order to reassure the region about the nuclear accord and the United States’ commitment to Gulf Arabs’ defense against the Iranian threat.

During the negotiations, the United States and Iran remained at odds over whether the sanctions on Tehran’s missile program would remain in place. Iran allegedly has worked on a missile reentry vehicle, capable of housing its nuclear weapons design for delivery via the Shahab-3 or Sejjil-2 ballistic missile. In the lengthy annex to the International Atomic Energy Agency’s November 2011 Board Report (and in more indirect ways in other IAEA reports), the Agency described how Iran’s weapons related work was conducted under the umbrella of a single bureaucracy, linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp, and intended to develop a nuclear weapon.

The Iranian negotiators argued that closing the nuclear file would lead to ending all sanctions—including the ban on conventional weapons imports and the missile related sanctions. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action keeps the United Nations Resolution’s restrictions on conventional weapons in place for 5 years and the missile related sanctions for eight years. Iran has the region’s largest stockpile of ballistic missiles and has an active program to increase further the capabilities of its cruise missiles.

While Iran would will still face export-related challenges after missile-related sanctions are lifted, Washington remains committed to developing an integrated air-and-missile defense system, designed to defeat the Iranian missile threat in the long-term. Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have all imported US missile defense systems. The Gulf States, however, remain divided over further integration, owing to concerns over intra-Arab command-and-control issues. This issue remains politically fraught over worries that Saudi Arabia—the largest Gulf Arab state—would gain undue influence in a hypothetical integrated GCC air defense unit, thereby prioritizing its security threat perceptions over that of other Gulf state that may not share the same view. 

The more hawkish anti-Iranian states have sought to acquire long-range offensive missile capabilities to pair with missile defense. The Saudis have imported ballistic missiles from China, while the UAE has turned to North Korea and the United States for shorter-range systems capable of targeting Iranian territory. Both countries have also purchased the UK/French made Storm Shadow air launched cruise missile for integration on their front line Typhoon and Mirage fighter aircraft. These missile sales were controversial in the United States, owing to their likely violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). 

The MTCR is an informal group of thirty-four states that have agreed to adopt national export-control policies that incorporate a common export-control list. Controlled items are divided into two categories. Countries are expected to apply a strong presumption of denial to the export of Category I items—in other words, governments have to make a particularly strong case to acquire them. These restrictions include rockets, missiles, and drones capable of flying more than 300 kilometers while carrying a payload of 500 kilograms. Category II systems are capable of flying at least 300 km with payload weighing less than 500 kg. These limits reflect the MTCR’s original intent: to prevent the spread of nuclear capable delivery systems. 

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