Waning confidence in Washington fuels Middle East missile race

It is clear Washington has abandoned the role of major outside actor in the region.
Friday 26/10/2018
A waxwork of US President Donald Trump stands near a waxwork of former US President Barack Obama in the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Berlin, Germany. (Reuters)
A waxwork of US President Donald Trump stands near a waxwork of former US President Barack Obama in the Madame Tussauds wax museum in Berlin, Germany. (Reuters)

After disastrous hyper-involvement in the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the United States has been on a course of disengagement from the region.

From former US President Barack Obama’s famous “pivot” to Asia to current President Donald Trump’s aversion to direct engagement and reliance on local leaders to advance US interests, it is clear Washington has abandoned the role of major outside actor in the region.

That role has to a certain extent been seized by Moscow but Russia is structurally weak and its advances in the region have been more the result of wily tactical moves by Russian President Vladimir Putin than of a grand strategic vision by a great power. It is unlikely that Moscow will assume the omnipresence once held by the United Kingdom and then the United States.

Instead, Georgetown University defence analyst Bilal Saab said, it is the rise of local powers that is filling the void left by US disengagement. Local powers, Saab wrote recently in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “increasingly operate outside the US strategic orbit due to their decreasing confidence in US leadership.”

This trend is most apparent in national defence strategies. Not only are Middle Eastern countries seeking to diversify their sources of weaponry, they are focusing on enhancing offensive capabilities in the form of long-range ballistic missiles, raising the spectre of a regional missile arms race.

Israel, as usual, is ahead of the game. Although the recipient of tens of billions of dollars in US military aid over the years, Israel fashions itself as a country that takes care of its own defence needs and trusts no outsider for its security. The Middle East’s only confirmed possessor of nuclear weapons, Israel is working on a missile system capable of hitting targets anywhere in the Middle East.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told the Times of Israel: “We are acquiring and developing systems that will allow… the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to cover within a few years every point in the region… allowing precise hits by remote launching.” Israel boasts several batteries of Jericho ballistic missiles that can deliver nuclear warheads.

Israel’s arch-enemy, Lebanese group Hezbollah, has its own arsenal of more than 100,000 short- and medium-range rockets capable of hitting many parts of Israel.

While Israel has historically aimed for defence self-sufficiency, Saab wrote that “had Washington made tangible efforts to prevent Iran from establishing a long-term military presence in Syria, or had Israel had the slightest assurance that Washington would actively support the elimination of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, the IDF would probably have shelved the offensive missile option for some time.”

US allies in the Gulf, Saab said, were having second thoughts about reliance on Washington for their defence and concluded that the mostly defence-oriented missile systems the United States is willing to provide are inadequate.

He wrote: “Like Israel, some Gulf countries are heading towards a stronger deterrent posture — through a broader mix of offensive technologies, including missiles — because missile defence on its own does not seem to be the answer to the Iranian missile problem.”

For years, Washington has tried to dissuade Gulf states from pursuing offensive missile capabilities, fearing an arms race that could escalate into a regional war. As Saab pointed out: “Missiles are inherently destabilising weapons because of their potential to quickly escalate conflicts. Their flight times can be very short and new technologies are dramatically improving their accuracy and lethality.”

Washington’s ability to sustain this argument depends on whether Gulf countries feel confident about the US security umbrella. Saab said, however, “with US influence in the Gulf seemingly declining, it is unlikely that Washington’s preferences will register as strongly in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as they did in the past.”

As destabilising as an offensive missile race is, it is potentially even worse: In addition to Iran — whose nuclear ambitions are documented — several other regional states are pursuing peaceful nuclear technology to meet local energy needs. The list includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Qatar and Egypt. Ballistic missiles combined with nuclear capability, as in the csae of Iran, are a recipe for a dark and dangerous future.

Developing an indigenous missile industry is not easy. Buying such weapons is, especially for wealthy Gulf states. Most countries that manufacture ballistic missiles are members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and have voluntarily restricted their sale. Pakistan, China and North Korea, however, are not members of the MTCR.

Can a looming Middle East missile race be avoided? Saab was pessimistic: “The only actor that can stop or at least manage the situation, by promoting arms control, is the United States. Unfortunately, it appears that Washington said goodbye to the region a while ago.”