19 December, 2017

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Programme: Implications for GCC and EU Security

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Iran’s ballistic missile programme is its main national security additive that complements both its nuclear programme and the proxy wars it wages. The programme is one of the country’s most critical assets. Being geopolitically located in the Arab Gulf and maintaining far reaching capabilities (that could strike the European heartland), the threat from Iran is significant. 

An overview of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, and capabilities, is necessary to understand current tensions in the region. Before the 1979 Iranian revolution, Iran had relied on Israel to develop a short-range missile system, called Project Flower. This programme collapsed with the Shah’s regime. Since then, Iran has sought to develop a national ballistic missile capability to add to the arsenal of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Since 1979, Iranian missiles have played a vital role in the pursuit of Iranian national interest—and regional instability.

During the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), Iran received Russian Scud-B missiles from Libya, Syria and North Korea. Such shipments did not, however, reduce Iran’s desire for home-grown products. Hence, Iranian-developed missiles such as the Shabab 1, 2 and 3 (Ghadr-1), which were based on the Scud-B missiles, the Sajjil missiles, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the Hanit and Ra’ad missiles – the former was deployed in the 2006 Lebanon war and the latter is deployed as a deterrent in the Arab Gulf – and lastly, the Zalzal heavy tactical rocket and Ashura missile, both of which can reach European and all of Iran’s adversaries along the way, were developed and used by Iran through its ballistic missile programme. Today Iran relies heavily on its missiles because its conventional air power is far inferior to all of its Arab neighbours and Israel. Iranian aircraft and surface-to-air missiles can be traced back to the Shah’s regime and are outdated or are low quality versions of similar weapons used by Russia and China. Iran currently maintains the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles in the Middle East and possesses missiles with a range of 1,500km to 2,000km, such as the Shahab-3 and Sejjil-2, which the Islamic Republic hopes to reach the 3,000km radius in the near future.

On the question of Iranian missiles, Europe and the United States are divided. President of the United States, Donald Trump, is pursuing a more assertive policy of containment, and has called for the neutralisation of Iran’s regional expansion.

The implications of Iran’s ballistic missile programme are acutely significant for Europe, though Europe has been slow to act. Recently, the Deputy Head of the IRGC, Brigadier General Hossein Salami, extended a direct threat and suggested that Iran would increase the range of its missiles and enable them to target Europe. In addition to the threats made against Europe, Iran has already deployed its missiles in Yemen, which is feeding into the civil war and ensuring that European interests are challenged since it is clear that instability in Yemen produces instability in the Middle East which is a governing factor in the unfolding migrant crisis. The recent avalanche of Iranian missiles in the hands of Houthi rebels that rain down on Saudi Arabia are ment to further destabalise the region and heighten tensions between Saudi Arabia and Europe. 

The US, for its part, has been actively encouraging the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to enhance its missile defense system and construct a regional shield based on the NATO model. Recently, the US State Department approved the sale of 44 Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) Anti-Missile Defense Systems to Saudi Arabia for approximately $15bn, specifically citing the Iranian threat. The US is interested in regional stability and is working to enhance GCC capabilities to that end. 

Europe may be in harm’s way of Iranian missiles, yet it is the United States that has developed a more robust plan to limit Iranian projection capabilities. 

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The Euro Gulf Information Centre strongly believes that the Iranian ballistic missile programme stands in contrast to its obligations in the P5+1 agreement and is a menace to regional stability. The EU and US should work at constructing, together with their Arab Gulf partners, a security architecture that can limit and eventually rollback Iranian missile deployments and proxies in the wider region.

By: Wouter Jansen

19 December 2017