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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Middle East Missile Proliferation, Israeli Missile Defense, and the ABM Treaty Debate

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Iran, Iraq, Israeli Security, The Middle East, U.S. Policy
Publication: Jerusalem Viewpoints

No. 430   May 2000

Executive Summary: The New Middle East Missile Race

For most of the Cold War period, the spread of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction to the Middle East was severely constrained by the existence of a global regime of arms control agreements and export controls that was chiefly supported by both the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But in the last decade this regime has crumbled:

  • In the Middle East, Iran and Iraq are seeking to build their own indigenous military-industrial infrastructure for the manufacture of intermediate-range (500-5,000 kilometers) missiles, and thus reduce their dependence on imports of whole missile systems, as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s. Intercontinental strategic-range systems are also planned.

  • These efforts are being backed not just by other rogue states, like North Korea, but by no less than Russia itself, which has abandoned the cautiousness toward proliferation that was demonstrated by the former Soviet Union.

  • Despite Washington’s efforts to stop these trends through the United Nations monitoring of Iraq and limited sanctions against Iran, the build-up of Middle Eastern missile capabilities has only worsened, especially since 1998 which saw Iran’s testing of the 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3 and the total collapse of the UN monitoring effort. Iraq has preserved considerable elements of its missile manufacturing infrastructure, continuing to produce short-range missiles, and with large amounts of missile components still unaccounted for. Nor did the administration stop the flow of Russian missile technology to Iran.

“The proliferation of medium-range ballistic missiles,” CIA Director George Tenet testified on March 21, 2000, “is significantly altering strategic balances in the Middle East and Asia.” 1 Clearly, the Middle East is far more dangerous for Israel than it was in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War. While diplomatic energies over the last decade have been focused on the Arab-Israeli peace process, a major policy failure has taken place that has left Israel and the Middle East far less secure.

Not only will Israel’s vulnerability increase, but on the basis of these planned missile programs, the vulnerability of Europe and the Eastern United States is likely to be far greater in the next five to ten years, as well. Thus, an entirely new strategic situation is emerging in the Middle East requiring far more intense efforts in ballistic missile defense on the part of the states of the Atlantic Alliance in order to assure their own security and enhance Middle Eastern regional stability.

With Russia playing such a prominent role in the disintegration of key elements of the proliferation regime, Moscow’s objections to robust missile defenses on the basis of the ABM Treaty should not serve as a constraint on the development and deployment of future missile defense systems. The Russian argument that the ABM Treaty is the cornerstone of global arms control rings hollow. The arms control regime for the Middle East has completely broken down and cannot reliably serve as the primary basis for protecting national security in the new strategic environment of this region. The most promising way of assuring the defense of Israel, the U.S., and the Western alliance is through a concerted effort to neutralize the growing missile threat with robust missile defenses, combined with the deterrence capabilities that they already possess.

Countering Israel’s Airpower

The strategic impact of missile proliferation on Israel is only understandable in the context of Israel’s overall military predicament. Israel is a small state with a population of approximately six million, some 70 percent of whom are concentrated in a coastal strip about 14 miles wide. Despite advances in the Arab-Israeli peace process, major Middle Eastern powers, including Iran and Iraq, still call for Israel’s destruction. Even with strenuous negotiating efforts, Syria remains in a state of war with Israel as well. All of these states are arming themselves with ballistic missile forces. The vulnerability inherent in Israel’s geography, combined with the potentially existential threat posed by many of its neighbors, inevitably influences Israel’s attitude toward deterrence and missile defense. 2

While Israel is small in both size and population, its neighbors benefit from a considerably larger geographic area and population base that permits them to maintain relatively large military establishments. In fact, while most of the ground formations of the Israel Defense Forces are reserve units, Israel’s neighbors deploy their ground forces as standing armies on active-service status. In some cases, like those of Republican Guard-type formations, these active service units are instrumental for regime protection.

This basic difference yields force ratios strongly weighted against Israel, which that country’s adversaries have been tempted to exploit. For example, during the summer of 1973, prior to the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War, Israel had 60 tanks deployed against 800 Syrian tanks on the Golan Heights (a force ratio of 13:1 against Israel). Just prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Israeli reinforced its armored forces, deploying 177 tanks against the 1,400 Syrian tanks arrayed from the Golan back to Damascus. During the 1970 War of Attrition, Egyptian artillery outnumbered Israeli artillery by a ratio of ten to one. Thus, one of the main elements of instability in the Middle East is the huge geo-strategic gap between the standing armies of Israel and its neighbors. 3

Missile proliferation is not an entirely new development on the Middle Eastern strategic landscape. In fact, missiles have been the chosen instrument of Israel’s military adversaries since 1973, to counter the deep penetration capability of the Israeli Air Force. Egypt received its first Scuds in 1973, and fired them in Sinai during the Yom Kippur War. Syria fired short-range Frog-7 rockets in 1973. It was easier to build up missile forces than to train pilots and acquire sophisticated fighter aircraft to beat the Israeli Air Force. 4 Missiles, unlike aircraft, could achieve assured penetrability of Israel’s airspace.

The Israeli Air Force, which unlike the Israeli army does not require reserve mobilization to be effective, is Israel’s front line against the numerical superiority of the standing forces of its potential adversaries. Deterrence by Israeli airpower, by threatening punishing air strikes in the event of a ground attack, is one of the means of neutralizing the quantitative strength of Israel’s neighbors’ standing active-service divisions. Thus, regional missile forces, by countering the Israeli air deterrent, re-establish the strategic power of its neighbors’ land forces.

Missiles, when combined with ground assaults, can help large standing armies overwhelm armies dependent upon reinforcement by reserves. This was the original concept for the use of Soviet short- and intermediate-range missiles in Europe against ports and airfields in order to disrupt the U.S. reinforcement of NATO. Today, Syrian missiles can hit Israeli equipment centers and reserve mobilization points, delaying the mobilization of reserves and thus extending the period during which numerically inferior Israeli forces would have to withstand the assault of waves of Syrian forces. Indeed, during the 1990s Syria invested in a dual effort to expand its missile forces and upgrade its armored and self-propelled artillery units. In the future, the support for offensive operations on land by missile forces could come from Syria itself, or even from a peripheral state like Iran or Iraq that sought to influence the military balance by contributing its missile power to the ground campaign of one of Israel’s neighbors.

Under such conditions, it would become more difficult to rely on the full strength of the Israeli Air Force for close air support of the ground forces, when Israeli pilots are busy establishing air superiority against SAM batteries and are at the same time expected to suppress surface-to-surface missile launchings against Israeli cities. The fact is that missile proliferation only increases the missions of the Israeli Air Force, keeping it from providing any significant assistance in the ground campaign as Israeli aircraft are busy seeking targets like mobile launchers across increasingly larger areas of the Middle East, including in Iran and Iraq. In comparison, the U.S.-led coalition in the 1991 Gulf War was able to degrade Iraqi ground capabilities from the air for six weeks before the engagement of coalition ground forces. In the Israeli case, the sequence is reversed. The small Israeli units on active service will be fully engaged in containing a possible surprise attack on land well before the Air Force can be of assistance.

Sometimes it is argued that because of the entry of ballistic missiles into the Middle East military balance, Israel’s traditional concerns with achieving defensible borders (or secure borders according to UN Security Council Resolution 242) on the Golan Heights or in the West Bank is outdated. However, the actual strategic impact of missile proliferation on Israel’s strategic environment is exactly the opposite: superior terrain conditions, including strategic depth, on the Golan Heights and in the West Bank are even more vital in the missile age, when small Israeli active-service units might have to fight for prolonged periods until the Israeli reserve mobilization is completed. In any case, as long as wars in the Middle East, like the 1991 Gulf War, are decided by the movement of maneuvering armored formations and not by missile attacks alone, then the conditions affecting land warfare, like terrain and strategic depth, will remain vital factors of Israeli national security.

Iran Acquires Russian Rocket Engines

The break-up of the Soviet Union has led to a breakdown of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). Under MTCR, the Soviets would not transfer to the Middle East missiles with a range greater than the 300-kilometer Scud. For example, during the 1980s, Moscow refused to give Syria the SS-23 with a 500-kilometer range. In contrast, since 1996, Russia has become active in helping the Iranian missile program, which is producing the Shahab-3 missile with a 1,300-kilometer range. The Iranians are planning to develop a 2,000-kilometer-range Shahab-4 that could reach as far as Germany or Italy. Israel has discerned that Iran intends to develop even longer-range missiles capable of striking all points in Western Europe and even the eastern seaboard of the United States. The shift from a missile program based on North Korean technology to a program based on missile technology from a space power like Russia could be instrumental in assisting Iran in obtaining the strategic capabilities to which it aspires.

For example, on July 15, 1998, the bipartisan Rumsfeld Commission, created by the U.S. Congress to assess, on the basis of classified information, the ballistic missile threat to the U.S., reported that Iran had acquired engines or engine designs for the Russian RD-214 rocket engine used in both the old Soviet SS-4 2,000-kilometer-range missile and in the SL-7 space-launch vehicle. 5 The Commission concluded that “Iran now has the technical capability and resources to demonstrate an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) range missile…within five years of a decision to proceed – whether that decision has already been made or is yet to be made.” 6 Clearly, access to Russian technology as well as the Iranian quest to reach a space-launch capability have provided Tehran with the realistic possibility of constructing a future generation of missiles that could pose a threat to Europe and the United States.

The Clinton administration invested considerable diplomatic energy in 1997 and 1998 in order to get Russia to stop transferring missile technology to Iran, appointing special envoys Frank Wisner and Robert Gallucci to address the problem. The issue was raised by National Security Adviser Samuel “Sandy” Berger in Moscow in May 1998 and repeatedly by Vice President Al Gore with Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin. 7 According to the testimony of the Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet on February 2, 1999, none of these efforts succeeded:

I mentioned in my statement last year that Russia had just announced new controls on transfers of missile-related technology. There were some positive signs in Russia’s performance early last year but, unfortunately, there has not been a sustained improvement. Especially during the last six months, expertise and material from Russia has continued to assist the Iranian missile effort in areas ranging from training to testing to components. This assistance is continuing as we speak, and there is no doubt that it will play a crucial role in Iran’s ability to develop more sophisticated and longer range missiles. 8

Iraq Ejects UNSCOM and Can Rearm

Iraq’s missile programs have been hampered by the monitoring and sanctions regimes created by the UN after the Gulf War. UN Security Council Resolution 687, from 1991, called for the destruction of Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, but permitted Iraq to retain a capability to produce missiles with a 150-kilometer range or less. Prior to the Gulf War, according to UNSCOM, the UN monitoring agency set up after the Gulf War, Iraq had made efforts to develop missiles with ranges of 1,000 to 3,000 kilometers, as well as a space-launch vehicle known as the al-Abid. 9 Beginning in 1987, Iraq began to convert over half of the 819 300-kilometer-range Scud-B missiles it had imported from the Soviet Union into 650-kilometer-range al-Hussein missiles. 10 At the same time, it reverse-engineered the al-Hussein in order to produce an entire missile from indigenously produced parts. Iraq has declared that it could domestically manufacture engines (flight-tested in 1990), whole missile airframes, warheads, and missile launchers. According to UNSCOM, Iraqi factories were directed in 1988 to plan for the production of 1,000 al-Hussein missiles. 11

It is likely the Iraqis have preserved this capability through the 150-kilometer loophole of UN Security Council Resolution 687. Even during the period of the most intense UN inspections, the Iraqis manufactured their own 150-kilometer-range al-Sumoud missile throughout most of the 1990s, consistent with UN resolutions. At the same time, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein nonetheless sought to systematically erode the post-Gulf War restrictions placed on his country. Beginning in 1996, he exploited the splits in the UN Security Council between the U.S. and the UK, on the one hand, and Russia, France and China, on the other hand, and consequently restricted, challenged, and eventually ejected the UNSCOM inspectors. Since the end of December 1998, Iraq is no longer under UN inspections or monitoring. Despite the approval of a new UN Security Council Resolution in December 1999 creating UNMOVIC, a new monitoring organization, it is unlikely Iraq will again accept monitors.

Thus, Iraq is free to again develop long-range missiles as it did prior to the Gulf War, even though its military-industrial infrastructure has occasionally come under allied bombardment in the last year. It should be noted that, despite Iraq’s declarations that it no longer possesses extended-range Scuds, during the 1990s it still sought to import missile components that only were useful for longer ranges. In November 1995, for example, a shipment of gyroscopes for missile guidance systems was intercepted in Jordan. 12 The same year UNSCOM revealed that Iraq was importing missile gyroscopes from Russian defense companies. 13

Should there be a serious deterioration of the United Nations sanctions regime, it would not take long for Iraq to convert its residual capabilities in the manufacture of short-range missiles into a renewed capability to produce missiles that can strike Israel or Turkey, as well as American bases in the Gulf. Iraq’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tariq Aziz, recently admitted to the connection between Iraq’s capability to manufacture short-range missiles and its ambition to again produce much longer-range missile systems:

During the last aggression, they (the Americans) bombed seven sites which had considerable success in trying to produce al-Su-moud (Resistance) missiles of 150-kilometer range….They hit them because they know that if anyone can produce a missile of 150-kilometer range, they can produce one with a 1,000-kilometer range (emphasis added). 14

The New York Times reported in late January 2000 that, according to American intelligence sources, Iraq had already repaired the military-industrial plants destroyed during the four-day Anglo-American bombing campaign of mid-December 1998. With respect to Iraq, the Rumsfeld Commission concluded:

Once UN-imposed controls are lifted, Iraq could mount a determined effort to acquire needed plant and equipment, whether directly or indirectly. Such an effort would allow Iraq to pose an ICBM threat to the United States within 10 years. 15

Both Iraq and Iran will seek long-range missiles to deter each other. This will accelerate the Middle East arms race, regardless of efforts to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War included a war of the cities in which Iraq used about 190 600-kilometer-range missiles to strike Tehran. Long-range missiles provided Iraq with a means of contending with its own lack of strategic depth vis-a-vis Iran, which Tehran exploited by repeatedly striking Iraqi cities, like Baghdad and Basra, for most of the Iran-Iraq War. For that reason, Iraqi officials, like Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, admitted to UNSCOM Chairman Richard Butler that long-range ballistic missiles were vital for Iraqi national security: “Those weapons saved Iraq from the Persians.” 16 This further explains the determination of Iraq to retain and develop its ballistic missile programs.

Missiles May Deter the U.S. and Israel

Moreover, both Iraq and Iran seek to deter American intervention in the Gulf, because each sees itself as the ultimate hegemonial power in the region. For that reason, each country has its own interest in developing long-range missiles that can eventually strike American territory. Libya has stated such an interest explicitly. This will only accelerate medium-range missile programs as technological stepping stones to an intercontinental-range capability. In the interim, Iraq and Iran will attempt to deter the U.S. by threatening U.S. allies in the Middle East region, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia, or even Western Europe. This partly explains Iraq’s use of missiles in the 1991 Gulf War (39 were fired at Israel) and is similar to the Soviet threat in the 1950s of using intermediate range missiles against America’s NATO allies, before Moscow obtained missiles with intercontinental range that could strike the United States.

The very capability to strike Israel could provide new roles for Iraq and Iran in future conflict scenarios in the Arab-Israeli sector of the Middle East. Iraq has been directly involved in past Arab-Israeli wars, dispatching significant expeditionary forces in 1948, 1967, and 1973; in 1991, as just noted, it launched ballistic missile strikes against Israel as part of the Gulf War. Today, both states have developed strong relationships with populations surrounding Israel. Iran’s ties with the Lebanese Shi’ites not only included military supply to Hizballah, but the actual deployment of Iranian forces in Lebanon, including forces controlling Iranian al-Fajr missiles (with a 70-kilometer range) capable of striking Haifa. Had it not been for the intense peace efforts on the Syrian-Israeli track in the first half of 2000, this deployment of Iranian missiles on Lebanese soil could have become a Middle Eastern version of the Cuban missile crisis. In the meantime, a dangerous precedent has been established of foreign deployment of ballistic missiles that could be imitated elsewhere.

On another front, the deep identification of the Palestinians of the West Bank, Gaza, and even Jordan with Iraq was repeatedly demonstrated during the Gulf War and during subsequent Western military operations against Baghdad during the 1990s. Should Israel be forced into incidents of increasing friction with either the Lebanese Shi’ites or the Palestinians, it would be a mistake to rule out future Iranian or Iraqi efforts to deter or limit Israeli actions by the threat of missile attacks. This type of “extended deterrence” by Iraq or Iran to conflict situations in the Arab-Israeli sector of the Middle East could give the most low-scale acts of terrorism on Israel’s borders tremendous regional escalatory potential, even if a peace settlement is reached between Israel and some of its neighbors.

Finally, it is important to remember that driving the current wave of ballistic missile proliferation are considerations other than pure military utility. A proven missile capability is first and foremost a demonstration of technological accomplishment and prestige for many regimes throughout the region. Missiles are painted on Iraqi billboards and paraded in downtown Tehran. This is one reason why Middle Eastern states will be more prone to invest in their ballistic missile arsenals, despite their huge cost, rather than just utilize simple methods of delivering a mass destruction weapon, like a suitcase carried by a terrorist. Moreover, national command authorities can clearly control ballistic missile launches from their home territory better than a weapon carried a long distance by a suicide-bomber, who in all likelihood will not have secure communications with his home country.

Missile Defense: An Imperative for Israel

The growing proliferation of missiles in the region is not easy for Israel to deter. In the past, missile threats chiefly emanated from states that were relatively close to Israel, with Israel able to respond in a variety of ways from a counterattack by assault forces to the use of airpower. Former Israeli chief of staff Motta Gur once said: “If the Syrians hit us with missiles, we will gallop to Damascus.” After a Syrian Frog-7 rocket attack in the Galilee during the 1973 war, the Israeli Air Force retaliated against the Syrian Air Force headquarters in Damascus. This may not be so easy to replicate in the future. The new missile threats come from Israel’s periphery. Some of these states are located near the operational limits of the Israeli Air Force. Missile launchers can be dispersed or concealed in their vast areas; according to UNSCOM, Iraq alone had 56 fixed launch sites (28 of which were operational for al-Hussein missiles) and about 15 mobile launchers. To reach these states, future Israeli governments will face the dilemma of whether to send the Israeli Air Force through the airspace of states with whom Israel is at peace, even without permission.

There is also the larger question of whether in the future deterrence by punishment , by which an attacker refrains from action because of his fear of punishing retaliation, can be relied upon by Israel as it was in the past, especially with respect to threats below the nuclear threshold that the superpowers experienced during the Cold War. For example, Iraq admitted to UNSCOM that it had produced 75 special warheads for its ballistic missile forces, 25 of which contained biological weapons (like anthrax and aflatoxin) and 50 of which contained nerve gas agents (like sarin and binary chemicals); later it was revealed that Iraq had weaponized V-X agent as well. 17 Tariq Aziz admitted to Richard Butler that Iraq maintained its biological weapons specifically for use against Israel. 18 How would the U.S. or Israel respond to a non-nuclear attack with weapons of mass destruction?

Or going down the scale of warfare, can Israel easily deter, with confidence, a conventional military attack on its cities, especially after it demonstrated a policy of restraint during the 1991 Iraqi missile attacks on greater Tel Aviv? Today, in the case of limited war in South Lebanon, Israel is dismantling its security zone, backed by the South Lebanese Army, and instead is relying on a new deterrence posture based on punishing strikes against Lebanese infrastructure and, if necessary, Syrian interests. But the situation in the year 2000 is not the same as in the 1950s when Israel used a policy of retaliation and deterrence to protect its security. Israel has peace treaties (Egypt and Jordan) and quasi-diplomatic commercial ties (Qatar, Oman, Morocco, and Tunisia) with a number of Arab states, which it will not want to put at risk. Moreover, it is not clear if the international community will permit escalatory Israeli responses to establish deterrence. For this reason, deterrence by denial strategies, by which an attacker decides to refrain from action because he will not succeed, are likely to become more important in Israel’s national strategy in the future.

On the political level, there is no arms control alternative to missile defense. While Israel is engaged in a peace process with some of its neighbors, neither Iraq nor Iran are involved in any political dialogue with Israel. Iraq has broken its commitments to the UN to permit the monitoring of its facilities, while Iran shows no signs of any moderation, with its missile and non-conventional programs under the control of religious leader Ali Khameini and not President Khatemi or the Parliament. Iraq also violated the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT) with its secret nuclear programs, even though it was inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Thus, there is no serious arms control alternative to missile defense. In addition, many powers external to the Middle East, especially Russia, have been violating past arms control understandings, like MTCR.

Missile defense in the Middle East is stabilizing. It does not replace deterrence or civil defense but rather complements them by providing a multiple response to the challenge of missile proliferation. It neutralizes the missile power of states like Iran and Iraq that have hegemonial ambitions which threaten both Israel and Western interests in the Gulf region. Missile defense reinforces deterrence by reinstating the strength of conventional airpower against the numerically superior land forces of some of Israel’s neighbors that have been historically tempted to exploit their advantage for a surprise attack. Due to Israel’s small size, its missile defenses could also provide protection for some of its neighbors, particularly Jordan and the Palestinians. Any robust regional defenses that neutralized the missile power of Middle Eastern rogue states would enhance the security of countries that have relied on advanced Western air platforms for their defense; besides Israel, this would include Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates.

Israel and the ABM Treaty Debate

The 1972 Antiballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, signed as part of the Strategic Arms Limitation Agreements (SALT-1), limited the number of anti-missile sites that either the U.S. or the Soviet Union could construct to defend themselves against strategic missiles. The treaty was drafted with the underlying assumption that in the strategic relations between the superpowers during the Cold War, stability would be strengthened by the U.S. and the USSR relying on mutual deterrence instead of building up defenses against each other’s missile forces.

With the end of the Cold War and the likely emergence of new missile powers in the Third World, like North Korea or Iran, a serious debate has emerged in the U.S. over whether the ABM Treaty has any future relevance. First, it has been argued that since the Soviet Union no longer exists, the treaty no longer has any legal standing. 19 Second, there are those who claim that the ABM Treaty is still in force, but there needs to be a renegotiation of the treaty by the U.S. and Russia, in order to enable the U.S. to erect a National Missile Defense against the new missile powers that might threaten U.S. territory in five to ten years. There is also a third camp that views the ABM Treaty as the cornerstone of the arms control process. They fear that tampering with the ABM Treaty will weaken Russia’s commitment to arms control and accelerate the arms race in offensive strategic weapons, especially on the part of other states, like China.

Israel is not a signatory to the ABM Treaty, which only obligated the U.S. and the Soviet Union. But like other U.S. allies in Europe and the Pacific, Israel is directly affected by the ABM Treaty and therefore has a stake in the outcome of the treaty debate. The ABM Treaty could be used to inhibit Israeli ballistic missile defense programs if they required American technology or capabilities. Article IX of the 1972 ABM Treaty states that “each party undertakes not to transfer to other states, and not to deploy outside its national territory, ABM systems or their components limited by this Treaty.” The key problem is that the ABM Treaty did not define the difference between a strategic missile and a theater missile and, therefore, delineate between strategic missile defenses, which it sought to limit, and permissible theater missile defenses, that were not covered by the treaty. A missile defense system like the Arrow, that was designed to neutralize regional threats from Iran or Iraq, might have some capability against longer-range strategic missiles. Israel’s Arrow system is based on Israeli technology; it has, moreover, not been tested against strategic-range missiles.

But what would happen if Israel sought to upgrade Arrow’s early-warning radar, which presently is Israeli-developed, with American early-warning assets? ABM Treaty considerations may have influenced the U.S. decision to refrain from moving one of its Theater High Altitude Defense (THAAD) radars to Japan to monitor North Korean missile launches. 20 Alternatively, in light of the robust missile threats emerging in the Middle East, what if Israel sought to layer its Arrow defense with the U.S. Navy’s AEGIS-based missile defense system? U. S. Air Force Lt. General Lester Lyles, director of the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, noted in March 1998: “What we would like to have is the capability so that if a contingency were to arise in the Middle East involving Israel and the USA, we would bring an AEGIS ship into the Mediterranean. Then we would be able to share missile defense information with an Israeli Arrow or Israeli Patriot.” 21 Today, it appears that Moscow’s pro-ABM diplomacy is concerned chiefly with neutralizing this American option for sea-based missile defense of its allies and troops abroad.

Internationally, Israel has backed the U.S. in its efforts to preserve maximal flexibility in making the ABM Treaty compatible with the new post-Cold War threat environment. On November 5, 1999, China, Russia, and Belarus sponsored a resolution in the First Committee in the UN that sought to constrain the development of a National Missile Defense by the U.S. It called for “renewed efforts by each of the state parties to preserve and strengthen the ABM Treaty through full and strict compliance.” In addition, the resolution called on the parties to the ABM Treaty “to refrain from the deployment of anti-ballistic missile systems for a defense of the security of its country.” The resolution was passed by a vote of 54 to 4 with 73 abstentions. Israel joined the U.S. in voting against the resolution along with Latvia and Micronesia (thirteen EU members, Japan, and the Republic of Korea abstained, while France and Ireland voted in favor). 22

The diplomatic struggle over the ABM Treaty is based on a false premise. It has been assumed that the ABM Treaty is the cornerstone of arms control because it permitted limitations, and later reductions, in the offensive arsenals of the superpowers. With missile defenses severely limited, the superpowers would not need to enlarge their missile forces in an attempt to saturate and overwhelm their opponent’s ABM system. As long as Moscow was signing new agreements cutting its offensive missiles, ABM Treaty advocates felt that the preservation of the treaty was critical for preserving a more strategically stable world. However, in the post-Cold War world, the growing threat to stability does not come from the Russian nuclear arsenal but from the new missile powers of the Middle East and Pacific rim. The ABM Treaty might have been once used as leverage against an offensive build-up of Soviet missile forces, but today the ABM Treaty is not inhibiting in any way the new wave of missile proliferation in the Third World.

In fact, Russia, which is seeking to protect the ABM Treaty in the name of arms control and disarmament, has done much to undermine the pillars of global security since the mid-1990s through its supportive role in missile proliferation. It directly assisted the Iranian missile program, violating the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime. It also led the diplomatic drive against UNSCOM in the UN Security Council, which resulted in freeing Iraq from any inspections. If there is serious concern with the impact of U.S. missile defenses on the offensive arsenals of other states, this concern is misplaced. That offensive buildup is occurring anyway and rapidly. Missile defenses are an urgent need, precisely because key elements of the global arms control regime are no longer being observed, particularly by Russia.

Whether Washington renegotiates the ABM Treaty, or simply gives notice that it no longer obligates the U.S., is an American decision, since it alone is a signatory to the agreement. Yet what is vital for American allies in the Middle East and Europe is that whatever is decided, no obligations should be undertaken that limit the freedom of action of the U.S. to work jointly with its allies abroad, using its sea-based or even space-based assets to counter this rapidly unfolding threat of ballistic missile proliferation.

Type Launchers Missiles Range (km)
Syria Scud-B
18 200 280
Iraq Mobile al-Hussein
Fahad (converted SA-2)

(not operational)


Iran Scud-B/CShahab-3
(under development)
(deployed in Lebanon)
300 (Scud B)
100 (Scud C)


Libya Scud-B



Sources: Shlomo Brom and Yiftah Shapir, eds., The Middle East Military Balance, 1999-2000 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000); The Economist , 31 July 1999; The Sunday Times (London), 5 January 2000; and Anthony H. Cordesman, The Military Balance in the Gulf and the Threat from Iraq (Washington: Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 2000).

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  1. Statement by Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on “The World Wide Threat in 2000: Global Realities of Our National Security,” as prepared for delivery 21 March 2000.
  2. Shmuel Limone, of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, has catalogued Israel’s perceived vulnerabilities: Israel has no strategic depth and is surrounded on three sides; it is dependent on outside sources of energy and sea/air lines of communication; sensitivity to casualties; wars are subject to democratic debate. See Shmuel Limone, “The Arab Threat: The Israeli Perspective,” in James Leonard, ed., National Threat Perceptions in the Middle East (UNIDIR, 1995), pp. 9-11.
  3. This point is made by Israel’s former chief-of-staff and deputy minister of defense, Lt. General (res.) Mordechai Gur. See “Destabilizing Elements of the Middle East Military Balance,” in Dore Gold, ed., Arms Control in the Middle East (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1991), p. 14.
  4. Yitzhak Rabin noted after the Gulf War: “Once having managed to cope with air defense by using surface-to-air missiles, they would like to reach the heart of Israel by surface-to-surface missiles, rather than rely on pilots for either aerial defense or for offensive air penetration.” See Yitzhak Rabin, “Deterrence in an Israeli Security Context,” in Ahron Kleiman and Ariel Levite, eds., Deterrence in the Middle East (Tel Aviv: Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, 1993), p. 14.
  5. Executive Summary of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, July 15, 1998, Pursuant to Public Law 201, 104th Congress, The Honorable Donald H. Rumsfeld, Chairman.
  6. Rumsfeld Commission.
  7. See the book of Washington Times correspondent Bill Gertz, Betrayal (Washington: Regnery Publications, 1999), pp. 186-190.
  8. Statement of the Director of Central Intelligence George J. Tenet as prepared for delivery before the Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Current and Projected National Security Threats, February 2, 1999.
  9. See UNSCOM report submitted by Executive Chairman Richard Butler to the UN Security Council, January 15, 1999, p. 4.
  10. UNSCOM report, p. 5.
  11. UNSCOM report, pp. 19-20.
  12. UNSCOM report, p. 52.
  13. R. Jeffrey Smith, “Document Indicates Illicit Russian-Iraq Contract,” Washington Post , February 12, 1998.
  14. Reuters, “Iraq Says West Destroyed Seven Missile Plants,” February 3, 2000.
  15. Rumsfeld Commission.
  16. Richard Butler, The Greatest Threat: Iraq, Weapons of Mass Destruction and the Crisis in Global Security (New York: BBS Public Affairs, 2000), p. 118.
  17. UNSCOM report, p. 14.
  18. Butler, op. cit.
  19. Douglas Feith and Thomas Moore have argued that Russia and the newly independent states that arose on the territory of the former Soviet Union did not preserve the legal personality of the USSR and hence are not successors to its treaty obligations. See Center for Security Policy – Publication 98-D-139. Both the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Jesse Helms, and Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Chairman of the House International Relations Committee, wrote to President Clinton two years ago that “if it is unclear as a matter of law whether Russia or any other country that emerged from the Soviet Union is today bound by the ABM treaty, then it shall also be unclear whether the United States is so bound.” See New York Times , April 28, 2000.
  20. Center for Security Policy, Publication 99-D-91.
  21. Jane’s Defence Weekly , March 18, 1998. See also Gerald Steinberg, “Re-examining Israel’s Security Doctrine,” in RUSI International Security Review , 1999, pp. 215-224.
  22. Anthony Goodman, “UN Adopts Draft Against U.S. Anti-Missile Defense,” Reuters, November 5, 1999.

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Dore Gold is President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Previously, he served as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations (1997-1999). This Jerusalem Letter is an expanded version of a presentation made to a roundtable meeting of the American Enterprise Institute’s New Atlantic Initiative in Madrid, Spain, May 2000.