Iran’s Ballistic Missile Test Shows U.S. Defense of Middle East Allies Must Change. Here’s How
Iran’s recent nuclear-capable ballistic missile test exploded three myths popular in Washington: that missile development was forbidden by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; that Saudi Arabia’s reckless and heinous killing of Jamal Khashoggi represents the most pressing regional threat to the United States; and that U.S. sanctions are addressing Iran’s growing missile threat. The United States should offer a more robust approach to addressing that threat, including developing a regional missile defense capability for our Middle Eastern partners.
The Senate just voted last week to cease U.S. support for the Saudi-backed coalition against the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen, capping over two months of rising condemnation by U.S. lawmakers over Saudi Arabia’s killing of Khashoggi. The rhetoric and resolution have suggested this killing trumped all the killings the Tehran regime perpetuates inside Iran, as well as in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, of regular people not fortunate enough to be Washington Post columnists. And it ignored Iran’s conventional and nuclear threat.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as the nuclear deal with Iran is known, did not even pretend to address Iran’s missile threat. Although prior resolutions of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) declared that Iran “shall not” work on ballistic missiles, Resolution 2231 implementing the JCPOA softened that language to merely state that Iran is “called upon” not to do so.
Iran has heard that call and ignored it, as is its privilege under the JCPOA and UNSCR 2231.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned Iran’s behavior before the UN Security Council, but he knows the United States cannot count on our European allies who still support the JCPOA, let alone the so-called international community.
Nor can the U.S. rely on its easiest go-to tool–unilateral sanctions. Throughout its first two years, the Trump administration has sanctioned dozens of Iranian regime-related individuals and entities involved with missile development, yet the result has been more missile development.
The United States needs to take more impactful action to protect its own interests and assets in the region, shield its allies from Iranian missiles, and send a strong signal to Tehran that it will not tolerate further missile testing.
The first step is to return U.S. missile defense capabilities to the region. Earlier this year, the Pentagon pulled four Patriot missile defense batteries from Jordan, Kuwait, and Bahrain. While this move is touted as a realignment of U.S. forces to address the increased emphasis the recent National Defense Strategy puts on competition with Russia and China, that same Strategy also notes “Iran is competing with its neighbors, asserting an arc of influence and instability while vying for regional hegemony using state-sponsored terrorist activities, a growing network of proxies, and its missile program to achieve its objectives.”
With Iran not only testing new ballistic missiles, but also having previously shot ballistic missiles across Iraq and into Syria, and provided ballistic missiles to the Houthis in Yemen who fire them into Saudi Arabia, it is essential that U.S. forces and bases are protected immediately with Patriot missile batteries.
The next step for U.S. policymakers–as called for by a Jewish Institute for National Security of America task force, of which we are members–should be to weave together a network of regional missile defense capabilities that would protect all U.S. regional partners as well. Such a network could be comprised of U.S. assets such as Patriot batteries and the AEGIS Ashore systems, but it could also bring together the capabilities of Israel and our Gulf State allies thanks to the new, discrete security relationship these countries are forging partly in the face of a common Iranian threat.
The United States could host a joint warning and operations center that would incorporate U.S. systems, Israeli systems like David’s Sling and Iron Dome, and Arab systems like the UAE’s THAAD battery. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might find embracing such an idea a fortuitous way to remind U.S. lawmakers of his country’s strategic importance and ability to further bridge the Israeli-Arab divide.
Finally, beyond erecting protections, the United States needs to demonstrate to Iran, in the strongest possible terms, that it will not tolerate its pursuit of ballistic missile technology. One way to do this would be to use missile defense capabilities to shoot down any missile launched from Iranian territory, even if a test. The United States should also explore using the various “left-of-launch” measures it designed to target North Korea’s missile program to disrupt Iranian advancement in this area as well.
Iran just shot a missile through myths driving much of the policy debate about the Middle East today. The United States should not let it shoot another.
Originally appeared in Newsweek on December 19, 2018.