July 2001 - The spread of ballistic missiles of increasing range and the growing trans-Atlantic debate about missile defense have emerged as important aspects of the strategic environment in the eastern Mediterranean.
Over the next decade, missile risks are likely to play an even larger role in security perceptions around the eastern Mediterranean. They will also exert a strong influence on American relations with Greece and Turkey, and will make the Mediterranean and the Middle East more prominent in Europe's own defense concerns.
Many of the world's leading proliferators are arrayed in an arc stretching from Libya to South Asia. Iran and Iraq are both pursuing the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction -nuclear, chemical, and biological-and the means for their delivery with greater accuracy at longer ranges.
Formally, Iraq's missile development has been limited to shorter-range systems, up to 150 kilometers (about 90 miles), since the Gulf War, but it is likely that a substantial arsenal of Scud-type weapons remains in the country. Furthermore, Iraq's ability to field missiles of regional or trans-Mediterranean range could be rapidly reconstituted. Recent assessments suggest that Baghdad is pressing ahead with plans to develop missiles with a range of over 1,500 kilometers (over 900 miles)-a system capable of striking Turkey and parts of Greece.
With its Shahab-3 missile program, tested in 1998 and again in 2000, Iran is already able to reach targets in the eastern Mediterranean, including Turkey, Cyprus, Israel, Egypt, and possibly Greece, and is moving rapidly toward multi-stage systems capable of reaching western Europe. Iranian missile development, based on North Korean No-Dong and Taepo-Dong patterns, has enjoyed significant Russian and Chinese assistance.
Libya and Syria have focused primarily on the development of a chemical weapons capability, coupled with the development of improved Scud missiles. Israel has developed a long-range missile capability with its Jericho system, and Saudi Arabia has even longer-range Chinese-supplied CSS-2 missiles, of questionable accuracy and reliability, acquired in the late 1980s.
Major cities in Turkey are already within range of missiles deployed in Iran, Iraq, and Syria, and southern Europe as a whole is becoming increasingly exposed to these systems. Within a decade, perhaps much sooner, major capitals of western Europe will be within reach of missiles deployed in the Middle East. But, for the moment, the eastern Mediterranean is the West's leading area of missile risk.
To be sure, chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons could be delivered by a variety of conventional and unconventional means, from artillery shells and aircraft, to cruise missiles and ships. They might also be employed covertly, through terrorist proxies.
Ballistic missile programs have become prominent because they offer a vehicle for enhancing national power and prestige, and geostrategic "reach." Missile programs also lend themselves to tighter control by regimes wary of placing weapons of mass destruction in the hands of normal military establishments, much less non-state actors.
Recent history offers numerous examples of the employment of ballistic missiles, mostly in the Mediterranean or nearby: the "war of the cities" in the Iran-Iraq conflict, the ineffective Libyan Scud attack on the Italian island of Lampedusa, the civil war in Yemen, and, of course, the Iraqi Scud attacks on Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain during the Gulf War. The employment of missiles in Mediterranean conflicts is not just a theoretical problem; it is a tangible one.
The nexus between missile proliferation and the development of weapons of mass destruction, especially nuclear weapons, is significant because it is unlikely that countries such as Iran would seek to acquire costly missiles of intermediate, much less intercontinental, range simply to deliver small conventional warheads. This suggests that Greece, Turkey, and Israel may soon face a strategic environment with one or more new nuclear powers, and growing retaliatory "reach."
The search for strategic weight, regional prestige, and the ability to counter overwhelming Western, including Israeli, conventional military capabilities provides strong motives for proliferation. Greece and Turkey are not the most likely targets of regional proliferators. But Athens and Ankara, and their allies in the West, can be strongly affected by the spread of longer-range missiles.
First, the consequences for regional balances will extend beyond the Levant and the Gulf. A nuclear-armed Iraq or Iran, capable of reaching Turkish population centers, could compel Ankara to seek a deterrent and retaliatory capability of its own, especially if Turkey is unsure of the credibility of NATO or European security guarantees. A missile race on Turkey's borders could affect military balances and strategic perceptions around the Balkans, the Caucasus and the Black Sea, the Aegean, and the eastern Mediterranean.
Second, the growing exposure of NATO's southern European members and Europe as a whole to ballistic missile attack means that areas at some distance from Arab-Israeli and Gulf conflicts will not be sanctuaries in future crises. Europe and eastern Mediterranean allies such as Egypt will be exposed to the retaliatory consequences of Western action in the Middle East. To the extent that the European Union develops a more independent and assertive policy in the Middle East, Europe will have additional reason to be concerned.
Third, European and Mediterranean exposure to missile attack could have tangible effects on trans-Atlantic coalitions and defense cooperation with the United States. Allied leaderships may be less willing to offer Washington access to forces and facilities to support American intervention if it means putting populations at risk. Cooperation may still be forthcoming where shared interests and alliance commitments are at stake. But the calculus of cooperation will be more complicated and uncertain.
Finally, notwithstanding the heated trans-Atlantic debate about missile defense, a more limited but near-term concept for regional missile defense-oriented toward risks emanating from North Africa and the Middle East-is more likely to find support among America's allies. Israel, with its Arrow missile defense system, is at the forefront of technical development to counter these new risks.
Within NATO, Turkey's perspective on the missile threat and the desirability of defenses is already closest to that of the United States. When London, Paris, and Berlin are similarly vulnerable, missile defense may move closer to the top of the NATO agenda. And, given the concentration of missile risks to the east of the Mediterranean, key elements of a more comprehensive defensive system, including radars and interceptors, may need to be deployed on the territory of regional allies, including Greece and Turkey.
Dr. Ian O. Lesser is a Senior Analyst at RAND in Washington, D.C., specializing in strategic studies and Mediterranean affairs.
The views expressed in Dr. Lesser's essay are the author's and should not be interpreted as those of RAND or its research sponsors.