Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are advancing domestic arms programs in the region’s Cold War.

Two events occurred within the span of late January and early February that add a new element to the already fraught regional tensions in the Middle East.

First, in late January news broke about a Saudi Arabian ballistic missile factory in al Watah, southwest of Riyadh. This development was followed up by an Iranian announcement, on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian Revolution, that it had developed its cruise missile.

Iran has long had a domestic development program for ballistic missiles, and the ability to create a new cruise missile represents an evolution in its capabilities. However, Saudi Arabia, which imports most of its arms, is seeking its domestic production capability, signalling the Kingdom’s increasing military and nuclear ambitions under its crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The current regional tensions have been described as a regional Cold War. If the Cold War between the superpowers was characterised by a spiralling arms race, then the recent developments indicate that the arms race in the Middle East’s 21st century Cold War has only escalated. 

Saudi ballistic missiles

Back in 2013, Jane’s Defense Weekly published satellite imagery revealing the Watah facility as a strategic missile base, was suspected of housing ballistic missiles purchased from China.

In 1988 the Kingdom had purchased Chinese D3-F Silkworm ballistic missiles, a purchase that was significant since Riyadh went outside its traditional markets of the US and Western Europe for these arms. Indeed, the 1988 purchase was made without US approval and caused concern in Washington, as ballistic missile proliferation had been viewed as destabilising for the region.

The recent findings were surprising as they revealed that Watah was no longer just a missile base, but a facility for Saudi Arabia to produce and test its ballistic missiles.

After years of seeking to purchase these missiles abroad, the facility represents a Saudi attempt to forge ahead with an independent military capability, trying to produce its own advanced missiles.

The Crown Prince had declared that Saudi Arabia would develop a nuclear bomb if Iran does. This missile-making facility would be a critical first step if Saudi Arabia sought nuclear weapons, giving Riyadh the capability to manufacture a long-range delivery system for nuclear warheads.

Iranian cruise missiles

In early February the Islamic Republic announced the successful test of a new cruise missile with a range of over 1,350 kilometres, adding a new weapon in its already existing fleet of ballistic missiles.

A ballistic missile burns up the fuel that propels it into the atmosphere, and once the fuel is consumed, the missile’s trajectory cannot be altered, following a path determined by gravity pulling it towards the Earth’s surface and its eventual target.

A cruise missile, on the other hand, is self-propelled during the duration of its flight and can fly at lower altitudes and change directions to reach its target, thus making it more accurate.

Iran’s cruise missile represents a significant technological milestone in its domestic arms production capability, particularly in overcoming the challenges of mastering jet engines for cruise missiles.

The Iranian announcement needs to be situated with what I termed “Iranian rocket diplomacy” in a previous article. In retaliation for a Daesh attack in Tehran, on 18 June 2007, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard launched six Zolfaghar ballistic missiles, with a range of around 700km, against Islamic State targets in Syria’s eastern province of Deir Ezzor.

While the target may have been Daesh, the strike sent signals to Riyadh in the aftermath of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s statement that Saudi Arabia would take its “battle” with the Islamic Republic inside of Iranian territory – a statement which preceded the Daesh attack in Tehran.

If the Iranian government took this statement as a veiled threat, it must have also taken bin Salman’s earlier desire for a Saudi bomb as one too, with the news of its ballistic missile capability as part of this looming threat.

The announcement of Iran’s new cruise missile also coincided with a domestic terrorist attack within Iran in the restive Sistan-Balochistan province, which targeted a base of the Basij, the paramilitary force affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.

In another article I wrote how Iran for a second time in 2017 launched ballistic missiles toward eastern Syria, targeting the Daesh-held town of Hajin, in retaliation for its alleged role in an attack on an Iranian military parade in the city of Ahvaz on 22 September.

The second launch had augured in an Iranian pattern of using ballistic missiles launches as a form of counter-terrorism.

Iran has not retaliated with missiles for the latest attack on an Iranian military parade. Nonetheless, the development of a cruise missile gives it another option to retaliate against terrorist bases in the future.

The cruise missile development, like the launch in June 2017, are both weaponised messages meant to intimidate Riyadh.

The Implications for US policy

The news of the missile developments in both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two antagonists in the regional Cold War, has implications for US foreign policy.

On 13 October 2017, President Donald J. Trump failed to recertify the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), popularly known as the “Iran deal.” One of the reasons he gave for his decision what that the JCPOA failed to prevent the development of Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

The Islamic Republic has demonstrated that not only would it defy the US by continuing to expand its ballistic missile capabilities, but innovating in its domestic arms program by producing cruise missiles.

While the tensions between the US and Iran are not surprising, what is unusual is how Saudi Arabia’s program stands in defiance of Washington’s policy to the region, despite the cordial relations between the Trump administration and the crown prince.

This revelation will only complicate relations between the US and the Saudi Arabia, at a time when a number of American lawmakers are incensed over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018 and Riyadh’s military campaign in Yemen.

In the regional cold war of the Middle East, the US has generally supported Saudi Arabia, with Russian backing Iran. Even Iran vies with Russia for dominance in Syria, and Saudi Arabia seems to want to wean itself from its dependence on the US for its security.

It seems that both of these states in the Middle East Cold war are seeking to carve out their own agency from their international patrons.

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