The Impact of the Ukraine War on Missile Diplomacy in the Middle East

May 4, 2022
Hanna Notte

The following is an excerpt from The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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.

Continue reading at The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

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