The financial windfall from oil and gas exports may boost regional officials’ ambitious economic diversification plans but doesn’t make them foolproof.
Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine has thrust Moscow into what will likely be a protracted confrontation with Western states – regardless of the trajectory of fighting in Ukraine’s east in coming weeks. How Moscow and Western capitals will approach that confrontation will also shape the future of the Middle East. In the past, cooperation between major external powers, especially the United States and Russia, was essential to successes in nuclear arms control and nonproliferation in the Middle East. However, regional missile proliferation – specifically advances in Iranian missile capabilities, which in turn stimulated increasing missile production or procurement by other regional states – never elicited the same level of U.S.-Russian cooperation. Going forward, Russian equivocation, U.S. distraction, and Gulf Arab states’ reliance on deterrence and defense facing an Iranian regime unlikely to change its regional posture will likely combine to further undermine prospects for addressing regional missile proliferation through diplomacy.
Missile Proliferation in the Middle East: A Long-Standing, Yet Growing Concern
Concerns over missile proliferation in the Middle East already stood acute prior to Russia’s renewed aggression against Ukraine. Several Middle Eastern countries –Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Israel, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia – have integrated missiles into their military strategies for decades, with some relying on indigenous production and others on foreign suppliers. Iran is noteworthy in that it maintains the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the region. Tehran views missiles as central to its strategies of “active deterrence,” defense, and asymmetric warfare, including by providing such assets to regional proxies.
In recent years, Iran has expanded the types and deployments of precision-strike weapons across its military services. The growing accuracy of its cruise and ballistic systems, for instance those used in the 2019 attacks on Saudi Aramco facilities and the 2020 attack on Ain al-Asad air base hosting U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, underscored Iran’s ability to target adversaries’ strategic assets and undermine their conventional superiority. The recent missile attack against alleged Israeli assets in Erbil in northern Iraq constituted at least the fifth time Iran has used ballistic missiles since 2017. That attack and other recent hostilities have also signaled Iran’s increasing willingness to up the ante, respond to perceived threats in a disproportionate way, and target actors outside their borders. Frequent Houthi attacks on Emirati and Saudi territory and reports of Hezbollah’s growing and increasingly sophisticated arsenal of precision-guided weapons also indicate that Iranian missile proliferation to nonstate actors remains of concern.
Facing these developments, the Gulf Arab states, long aggrieved over the failure of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to address the Iranian missile and proxy threat, have only grown more worried. Gulf Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia and the UAE, feel the threat posed by Iranian delivery systems has reached unacceptable levels. Saudi Arabia reported in late 2021 that its territory had come under over 1,200 Houthi missile and drone attacks since 2015, while the UAE is also regularly intercepting drones and missiles entering its airspace. The constant barrage of attacks has long caused Gulf Arab states to perceive the Iranian missile threat as more severe to their security than Tehran’s nuclear program.
Efforts at addressing the threat through diplomacy have faced stiff obstacles, as Iran considers its missile arsenal a nonnegotiable component of its deterrence and defense and refuses to be singled out while other regional states also produce or procure missiles. Any carrot and stick approach to impose constraints on Iran alone – capping the ranges of its missiles or limiting their transfer to nonstate actors – would unlikely be sustainable if it leaves missile capabilities of Tehran’s neighbors untouched.
Attempts at addressing missiles in the context of the conference on the establishment of a zone free of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East, convened under the auspices of the United Nations Secretary General, have stumbled over disagreements on the scope of a prospective zone treaty. In any event, a narrow regional process aimed at tackling missiles would neither assuage Iranian threat perceptions vis-à-vis the United States nor prevent external powers from providing strategic technologies that enable regional missile programs. Indeed, instruments like the Missile Technology Control Regime – whose 35 members agree to restrict exports of certain missiles and related technologies – and Hague Code of Conduct – a multilateral transparency instrument that commits parties to provide pre-launch notifications on ballistic missile and space-launch vehicle launches and test flights – lack the necessary “teeth” to constrain missile proliferation in the Middle East. The great wealth of expert analysis and ideas for ways out of the multilayered missile impasse, generated by scholarship and Track II discussions, has not yet met with a commensurate level of political will from key regional and external powers.
Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Complicates Efforts at Curbing Missile Proliferation
The war in Ukraine, and resultant Russian-Western confrontation, is set to further complicate prospects for addressing regional missile proliferation through diplomacy. Though Moscow and Washington often disagreed in years past on the right balance between carrots and sticks in dealing with nonproliferation-averse players in the Middle East, their cooperation was essential to arms control gains. Efforts such as the Arms Control and Regional Security working group in the 1990s, Iran nuclear talks since 2006, and destruction of Syria’s declared chemical stockpile in 2013-14 required U.S.-Russian alignment at the U.N. Security Council and beyond. Such alignment remained possible even during times of Russian-Western tensions.
Whether the sides can insulate existing arms control cooperation in the Middle East going forward, let alone muster the political will to tackle missile proliferation, is highly doubtful. While the fate of the JCPOA now appears principally dependent on decisions made by Iran and the United States – with Russia having walked back its earlier obstructionism – the situation in Ukraine will likely affect Moscow’s desire to cooperate with Western states on further arms control efforts. Russia’s past ambivalent stance on the Iranian missile threat was partially rooted in the calculation that Iranian troublemaking plays into Moscow’s hands by pinning down U.S. involvement in the region. In this new era of heightened Russian-Western confrontation, that calculus is unlikely to change. Meanwhile, Russia’s own efforts at tackling regional insecurity through an initiative that builds on its Collective Security Concept for the Persian Gulf Region will unlikely be met with enthusiasm from Western and key regional parties; in any event, missile proliferation is hardly central to Russia’s initiative.
What’s more, it appears doubtful that the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. will muster the political will to spearhead a serious diplomatic effort aimed at any Middle East arms control initiative, let alone missile constraints. Facing China as the “pacing challenge” and the “acute threats” posed by Russia in Europe, it has indicated that mitigating the Iran nuclear threat remains its priority in the Middle East. Regarding concerns that sanctions relief resulting from restoration of the JCPOA might enable the Iranian missile and proxy threat, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. recently stated that “CENTCOM is the land of less than perfect solutions.” The United States hopes that Gulf Arab states and Israel, leveraging the Abraham Accords and Israel’s integration into the U.S. Central Command’s area of responsibility, can step up cooperation on integrated air and missile defense. Rather than hoping to solve the missile threat through diplomacy resulting in unilateral Iranian, or multilateral, commitments and constraints, the Biden administration appears to calculate that active defense and deterrence are a more realistic fix.
Amid perceptions that the United States will further recalibrate its commitment to the Middle East and prioritize the Iranian nuclear threat, all while Russia will do little to address concerns over Iran’s missiles, the Gulf Arab states might indeed opt for greater self-reliance and cooperation with whom they perceive as necessary partners: Israel on air defenses and China to advance their own missile programs. The alternative path – regional states engaging in incremental steps toward missile constraints, or even in a more ambitious arms control and regional security process – appears a distant prospect, as long as major external powers remain distracted or, worse, ill-disposed toward such efforts.
is a senior research associate with the Vienna Center for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation.
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