Russia and Iran Threats Put Missile Defense Back on the Agenda

In Europe and the Middle East, plans for missile defense are a mixed blessing.

By , a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel on May 14, 2021.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel on May 14, 2021.
The Israeli Iron Dome missile defense system intercepts rockets fired from Gaza into southern Israel on May 14, 2021. ANAS BABA/AFP via Getty Images

In June, Jordanian King Abdullah II caused a stir when he remarked that he would support the establishment of a NATO-like military alliance in the Middle East. U.S. President Joe Biden, during his recent visit to the region, affirmed his commitment to “advancing a more integrated and regionally-networked air and missile defense architecture and countering the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems and missiles to non-state actors that threaten the peace and security of the region.” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has been the most enthusiastic proponent of the idea of a regional defensive alliance and has claimed that the de facto alliance between Israel and several Gulf Arab countries has already been activated successfully against aerial threats from Iran.

Whether or not it takes the shape of a full-fledged alliance, there are interesting parallels between the air defense pact the United States is proposing for the Middle East and NATO’s missile defense system in Europe. The growing threat posed by Iran’s missiles and the fear that Tehran could use them for nuclear weapons have been key drivers of U.S. efforts over the past 20 years to deploy a missile defense shield both in Europe and the Middle East. Notwithstanding Russia’s public threats against NATO, the alliance has long maintained that the missile defense system under development in Europe exists to counter threats from “outside the Euro-Atlantic area”—the bloc’s shorthand for Iran. Back in 2015, in the wake of the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov therefore remarked that there was no longer any reason for the United States to maintain its European missile defense plans. Lavrov had gotten his cue from U.S. President Barack Obama, who stated in April 2009 that once the Iranian threat was “eliminated,” there would no longer be a need for missile defense in Europe.

Yet with the Biden administration now admitting that the chances of reviving the nuclear deal are diminishing by the day, NATO’s anti-missile shield has a renewed purpose. Iran’s firm support for Russia’s war in Ukraine—including reports that it is supplying Russia with combat drones for use in Ukraine—could revive concerns of a potential Iranian threat to Europe. At the same time, there is also a heightened fear in Europe of the Russian missile threat. Even Berlin, a long-standing friend of Moscow, has expressed interest in purchasing a missile defense system to protect itself from Russia. Alongside the significant advancement of its nuclear program, Iran possesses the largest and most sophisticated missile arsenal in the region. Iran has missiles that can reach targets in the Middle East, Turkey, and southeastern Europe. In late 2018, Iran reportedly tested a medium-range ballistic missile, thought to be the Khorramshahr, which could potentially hit much of southern and eastern Europe—possibly including targets in France.

In June, Jordanian King Abdullah II caused a stir when he remarked that he would support the establishment of a NATO-like military alliance in the Middle East. U.S. President Joe Biden, during his recent visit to the region, affirmed his commitment to “advancing a more integrated and regionally-networked air and missile defense architecture and countering the proliferation of unmanned aerial systems and missiles to non-state actors that threaten the peace and security of the region.” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz has been the most enthusiastic proponent of the idea of a regional defensive alliance and has claimed that the de facto alliance between Israel and several Gulf Arab countries has already been activated successfully against aerial threats from Iran.

Whether or not it takes the shape of a full-fledged alliance, there are interesting parallels between the air defense pact the United States is proposing for the Middle East and NATO’s missile defense system in Europe. The growing threat posed by Iran’s missiles and the fear that Tehran could use them for nuclear weapons have been key drivers of U.S. efforts over the past 20 years to deploy a missile defense shield both in Europe and the Middle East. Notwithstanding Russia’s public threats against NATO, the alliance has long maintained that the missile defense system under development in Europe exists to counter threats from “outside the Euro-Atlantic area”—the bloc’s shorthand for Iran. Back in 2015, in the wake of the signing of the Iran nuclear deal, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov therefore remarked that there was no longer any reason for the United States to maintain its European missile defense plans. Lavrov had gotten his cue from U.S. President Barack Obama, who stated in April 2009 that once the Iranian threat was “eliminated,” there would no longer be a need for missile defense in Europe.

Yet with the Biden administration now admitting that the chances of reviving the nuclear deal are diminishing by the day, NATO’s anti-missile shield has a renewed purpose. Iran’s firm support for Russia’s war in Ukraine—including reports that it is supplying Russia with combat drones for use in Ukraine—could revive concerns of a potential Iranian threat to Europe. At the same time, there is also a heightened fear in Europe of the Russian missile threat. Even Berlin, a long-standing friend of Moscow, has expressed interest in purchasing a missile defense system to protect itself from Russia. Alongside the significant advancement of its nuclear program, Iran possesses the largest and most sophisticated missile arsenal in the region. Iran has missiles that can reach targets in the Middle East, Turkey, and southeastern Europe. In late 2018, Iran reportedly tested a medium-range ballistic missile, thought to be the Khorramshahr, which could potentially hit much of southern and eastern Europe—possibly including targets in France.

Some experts have warned that Iran will likely perceive U.S.-sponsored security cooperation among Israel and the Gulf states as an “offensive alliance,” encouraging the regime to ramp up its nuclear program and escalating military operations against countries lining up against it. Close cooperation, let alone an alliance, could strengthen existing divisions while extinguishing hopes of a diplomatic solution. Predictably, Iran has condemned plans for joint air defense, echoing long-standing warnings from U.S. nuclear physicists about what they contend is the destabilizing impact of missile defense in Europe and elsewhere.

An integrated air defense system in the Middle East would require recent adversaries to share sensitive intelligence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fierce opposition to missile defense in Europe has been on display almost as long as he has led Russia. In his fascinating memoirs, William J. Burns, a career diplomat and now CIA director, describes how Russian concerns over U.S. missile defense plans have the potential to cause a “trainwreck” in U.S.-Russian relations. Russian worries over missile defense were already evident during the Soviet era, when Moscow voiced concerns over then-President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. Widely known as the “Star Wars” program, the initiative was an attempt to develop a space-based missile shield that the Soviets viewed as potentially nullifying their strategic nuclear deterrent.

As Andrey Kortunov of the Russian International Affairs Council pointed out to me, Russia fears that the United States and its allies could significantly upgrade the missile defense systems deployed in Romania and Poland, which would undermine Russian second-strike capabilities. Moscow also worries that Washington could adapt its interceptors in Romania and Poland to enable them to fire offensive Tomahawk missiles. These fears are exacerbated by U.S. use of the Mark 41 missile launcher, previously utilized in retaliatory strikes, to shoot down incoming ballistic missiles. In 2018, Putin announced plans to deploy a number of new nuclear systems to evade U.S. missile defenses, including a nuclear-powered cruise missile and hypersonic glide vehicles.

In much of the West, Putin’s rhetoric on missile defense is dismissed as paranoia. According to Burns, “For many in Russia, especially in Putin’s orbit of security and intelligence hardliners, you could build a Disney theme park in Poland and they would find it faintly threatening.” Jim Townsend, a former U.S. Defense Department official and now a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, maintains that the NATO system is designed to deal with a small number of potential Iranian weapons, not to address Russia’s much more potent missile threat. A massive investment in new sites would be required to handle Russia’s stockpile of missiles. Although Poland and other Eastern European countries would support a change in NATO’s posture, any plan to reorient missile defense toward Russia would not obtain a consensus among the bloc’s other members. Even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there would be blowback if any reorientation of missile defense were attempted.

However, this didn’t stop Latvia from calling on NATO in May to approve the deployment of a missile defense system over the Baltic states. The request is related less to any protection such a system could potentially provide against Russian (or Iranian) missiles and more to the idea of having more U.S. forces on the ground in the region. Deployment of U.S. forces helps strengthen morale and is perceived as a form of insurance against a potential Russian attack. NATO missile defense is thus a means for the United States to signal its commitment to the security of its Central and Eastern European allies.

This same logic applies equally to the Middle East amid fears of a U.S. retreat from the region. During the Obama era, Washington sought fruitlessly to persuade the Gulf Cooperation Council’s member states to integrate their missile defense capabilities. While countries such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, and Qatar had purchased missile defense systems from the United States—including Patriot missile batteries and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system—to meet a possible Iranian nuclear threat, rivalries among the Gulf states hampered the establishment of an integrated defense. Iran’s heightened missile and drone activities in the region, including its 2019 strikes on Saudi oil processing facilities, have now increased the likelihood of an integrated air defense alliance.

Yet in the summer of 2021, the United States withdrew its missile defenses from Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries as it sought to pivot to threats from China and Russia. This once again raised questions about the United States’ reliability as an ally. Washington’s interest in sponsoring an integrated early warning system in the Middle East is a means of strengthening the credibility of U.S. commitments to its regional allies and could help allay fears regarding a U.S. withdrawal from the Middle East. The technology being provided is exclusive to the United States and will help ensure that U.S. personnel remain in the region.

There is, of course, a significant difference between the cases of Europe and the Middle East, beyond the threat to Europe from Russia. An integrated air defense system in the Middle East would require recent adversaries to share sensitive intelligence. Saudi Arabia has already made it clear that it will not agree to normalize relations with Israel unless the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is resolved. It could be many years until the political conditions are in place for a fully integrated defensive system—let alone a formal security alliance.

Furthermore, Israel views Iran as a mortal enemy that seeks its destruction. The Gulf states, while certainly concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activity, prefer dialogue with Iran rather than continued confrontation. The Biden administration aspires to integrate Israel’s air defense systems with those of the Gulf states through the development of a network of radars, early warning systems, and interceptors. Israel would clearly gain through sensors deployed in the Gulf, giving it early warning of a potential Iranian attack. But countries such as the UAE may be wary of incurring Iran’s wrath through open military cooperation with Israel.

Washington’s promotion of a regional defensive partnership has a wider purpose beyond signaling its commitments to regional allies: It is also intended to reduce the pressure for an Israeli preemptive military attack against an Iran that’s on the brink of obtaining a nuclear weapon. Obviously, the United States does not wish to be dragged into a regional war. For many years, U.S. officials have claimed that their funding, development, and deployment of missile defenses are not just intended to protect allies in case of conflict but also to deter and disincentivize the use of military force in the first place. For the Obama administration, cooperation with Israel on missile defense—the development and funding of the Arrow 3 system and the funding of the Iron Dome—was not only a way to support a key ally but also a means to reduce the likelihood of war.

This line of thinking is correct, as the last few days of fighting between Israel and Palestinian Islamic Jihad has shown. Israel’s Iron Dome reportedly intercepted 97 percent of rockets fired from Gaza to Israel by Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This successful performance all but neutralized the rocket barrage, helping significantly in obviating the need for a ground war and bringing the fighting to a quick end. It was surely no coincidence that Biden remarked on Sunday that the United States was “proud of our support for Israel’s Iron-Dome.”

It was not the first time missile defense has had a stabilizing impact. Former U.S. missile defense policy chief Peppi DeBiaso has argued that the transfer of U.S. Patriot defense systems to Israel played that role during the 1991 Gulf War. Although the Patriots were not very successful in intercepting Iraqi Scud missiles, it was widely believed that they helped persuade Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir to stay out of the U.S.-led war against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The presence of U.S. forces in Israel to activate the Patriots was also important in strengthening the Israeli public’s morale.

From this perspective, there would be a wider benefit for states in the region that share Israel’s fear of the threat posed by a nuclear-armed Iran. Countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have ties to Iran that they need to preserve. Yet they may come to see an integrated defense system—especially if it involves U.S. forces as a morale booster and potential tripwire force—as a blessing that could lower the possibility of a dangerous regional war.

Azriel Bermant is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations Prague.

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