The Devil is in the Missiles

By Col. (res.) Udi Evental | January 16-23, 2019

map of the middle east

The past week has demonstrated the growing importance of missiles in the regional and global strategic balances.


The Iranian surface-to-surface missile launched from Damascus to Israel reignited the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria. Like the previous round in May, Israel's preparedness resulting in the missile's interception showed again its upper hand vis-à-vis Iran in the "cat and mouse" games that both conduct. Nevertheless, the deployment of a heavy missile launcher close to the Israeli border proved Iran's capability and determination to pursue its military entrenchment in Syria even at the cost of direct confrontation with Israel.


The Russian position, however, will be a major factor in shaping the future course of the Israeli-Iranian power struggle. Focusing on strengthening the Assad regime, Russia is likely to try and restrain both Iran and Israel. Its evolving balance of interests on the ground is likely to determine for Russia which of the two will be subject to more pressure. Russia will have to assess and tradeoff various considerations - on one hand, its dependence on Iran and its proxies as "boots on the ground" (including in Northeast Syria that the U.S. is leaving), while on the other hand, the risks associated with Israel's military strikes to the stability of the Assad regime.


Further beyond the Middle East, the failed launch of an Iranian satellite (using technology relevant to inter-continental ballistic missiles as well) angered the Europeans, whom are already fuming over Iranian assassinations and terror operations against dissidents on European soil. For the first time since the adoption of the nuclear deal, the EU imposed sanctions on an Iranian intelligence unit and on two Iranian individuals. Germany banned Iranian airline Air Mahan from its airports due to its links to Iran's Revolutionary Guards.


It remains unclear why Iran continues to "shoot itself in the foot" – by carrying out terror operations in Europe, while the EU is about to launch the SPV mechanism to bypass American sanctions and facilitate international trade with Iran. Perhaps the scorpion-and-the-frog story illustrates Iran's predispositions, or that the lack of synchronization with Iran's own foreign policy priorities is the result of an internal power struggle. Meanwhile, having realized that its "maximum pressure" against Iran is not yielding results, the U.S. hopes that Europe will join forces in pressurizing Iran. For now, the EU is reluctant and will probably not attend next month's U.S.-Polish ministerial on the Middle East that is likely to target Iran.


Missiles are also on the global agenda and feature high in the evolving great-power competition. President Trump revealed last week the U.S. Missile Defense Review (MDR) that marks an upgrading of capabilities against an attack "from any source" on the U.S. homeland, implying Russia and China. The MDR outlines long-term technological developments, such as upgrading the SM-3 interceptor to include inter-continental ballistic missiles, the use of laser-armed drones and F-35 fighter for boost phase interception, and space-based sensors and interceptors.


Russia quickly warned that U.S. plans would undermine international stability and might lead to a new arms race. Notwithstanding, Russia rebukes the American ultimatum to withdraw from the Intermediary Nuclear Force (INF) Treaty if Russia does not suspend the manufacturing of its new cruise missile SSC-8.


Missile capabilities are also a major item on the U.S.-North Korea negotiations. Both parties started negotiating after Pyongyang undertook to freeze missile tests as it came close to acquiring the capability to launch a nuclear missile on the U.S. The White House announcement on scheduling a summit between Trump and Kim Jong Un next month was overshadowed by a CSIS report revealing a secret missile base in North Korea, one of 20 undeclared operational missile bases.




Authored by Col. (res.) Udi Evental



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