Towards a Regional Code of Conduct for Missiles in the Middle East

Deadly race: an Iranian Qader missile being fired during an exercise in 2020. Image: Fars Media Corporation / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

With missile stockpiles edging up across the Middle East, there is a clear need to develop a regional code for their acceptable use.

The Middle East is entering a new missile age. More regional states are either developing indigenous production capabilities or importing missiles than ever before. Currently, 11 states in the Middle East have ballistic or cruise missiles with ranges exceeding 250 km in their arsenals. But it is not just about the number of regional actors acquiring longer-range missiles. Missiles have also become a frequent feature of several regional conflicts, where they are used to meet new and evolving objectives beyond just deterrence or signalling military strength. This was on display during the Syrian civil war, and continues to feature prominently in the war in Yemen. Iran currently actively employs missiles to project power regionally. These examples reflect new patterns of use and a greater access to missiles perhaps unprecedented on a regional scale. As these dynamics take hold, traditional options and views about missile control start to appear both inadequate and out of sync with new regional realities.

Missiles are by no means new to the region. Israel and Egypt both showed an interest in developing ballistic missiles back in the 1950s and 60s. Another wave of regional interest in missiles came in the 70s and 80s, when countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria, among others, acquired Soviet-origin SCUD missiles and, in the case of Iraq, produced modified local variants of these missiles. The Iran-Iraq war saw the frequent use of ballistic missiles and spurred Iran, under the Islamic Republic, to seek to acquire and develop its own missiles. Countries in the Gulf also showed an early interest, and Saudi Arabia acquired Chinese ballistic missiles in 1988. While this is not a full historical survey, it shows how regional actors’ interest in either developing or acquiring missiles has historical roots.

Missiles are not only stockpiled as weapons of deterrence or weapons of last resort, but also frequently finding utility as land-attack precision strike weapons

Yet the regional missile landscape has evolved significantly since these historical efforts. Some actors have effectively exited the scene, such as Libya and Syria. Iraq underwent a long disarmament process in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. But many others developed significant capabilities. Currently, Iran and Israel stand out on a regional scale for their ability to indigenously produce advanced ballistic and cruise missile systems with long ranges. Many others are either harbouring plans to develop a manufacturing capacity – such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia – or have access to advanced missiles from international suppliers with significant ranges and accuracy, such as Egypt and the Gulf States. Missiles are also increasingly integrated into operating military force structures. For example, Saudi Arabia’s ‘Strategic Missile Force’ is the fifth branch of its armed forces dedicated to long-range strategic missiles.

Leaps in missile accuracy are reshaping the utility and value of missiles regionally. Missiles are not only stockpiled as weapons of deterrence or weapons of last resort, but also frequently finding utility as land-attack precision strike weapons. Nowhere is this more on display than in how Iran has so far used its missile capabilities in military missions – for attack/retaliation as well as to establish deterrence. For example, Iran launched a missile attack on two US bases in Iraq (in Irbil and Al Asad, west of Baghdad) in January 2020, using between 15 and 22 ballistic missiles, in retaliation for the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the former head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Qods Force. More recently, it also targeted a facility claimed to be linked to Israel in Irbil in Iraq with precision strike missiles. Such uses of missiles enable Iran to extend its military reach and compensate for its lack of an effective air force, which has long been crippled by cost considerations as well as international sanctions. The advance in accuracy, demonstrated to lethal effect here, is a far cry from Iraq's use of ballistic missiles against both Israel and Saudi Arabia in the lead-up to the Gulf War. Despite causing widespread panic, Iraqi missiles were much less successful at hitting their targets with precision. This has led the US to encourage its regional allies, including Israel and some Arab states, to explore the utility of regional coordination on missile defence. This issue is likely to have featured in Joe Biden’s discussions with regional leaders during his Middle East trip. But these proposals face opposition from Iran and are treated cautiously by some Arab states, who are sceptical about substantial and open defence cooperation with Israel without a broader settlement of the Palestinian issue.

Recent patterns of use suggest that increasingly accurate missiles loaded with conventional explosive warheads are likely to become a common occurrence

With the advanced accuracy of missiles, it is no longer sufficient to think about missiles as primarily linked to the delivery of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs). This was the analytical frame that dominated thinking about regional missiles for a long time. The link with WMDs certainly continues to be relevant in some instances. For example, it is difficult to think about the Israeli missile programme without linking it to its nuclear programme. Also, concerns about Iran's missiles would take a more serious turn if they were to be armed with nuclear weapons. Yet, recent patterns of use suggest that increasingly accurate missiles loaded with conventional explosive warheads, as in Iran’s attacks against non-state actors in Iraq and Syria and on US bases in Iraq, are likely to become a common occurrence. This is particularly relevant when thinking about arms control options. The Missile Technology Control Regime as well as the Hague Code of Conduct have been designed to focus primarily on addressing the threat of missiles that are capable of delivering WMDs. Regionally, missiles are seen as conventional long-range strike weapons – an extension of normal and legitimate military tools not linked to WMDs. Missiles are frequently paraded, discussed with relative openness, and even sometimes boasted about.

While the lack of stigmatisation complicates any efforts at arms control, there are other challenges too. As missiles become regionally ubiquitous, they are triggering action-reaction dynamics between various regional states. This would make efforts to reach an arms control arrangement that focuses on only one missile programme challenging in the presence of other active programmes in the region. This highlights the importance of considering and building regional solutions on missile control that would mitigate the potential for an arms race. Here, a regional discussion on acceptable codes of conduct for missile use would be a good starting point. Substantively, this code could apply principles of humanitarian law to military uses of missiles. Specifically, this would stress that civilians are not legitimate targets for missile attacks. With the growing accuracy and reach of missiles, such a code should also provide special protection for critical infrastructure. Efforts such as these could enhance predictability, begin to develop some regional norms on missile use, and possibly serve as a launchpad for a wider discussion on regional arms control.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Hassan Elbahtimy

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