IRAN’S decision to test-fire two ballistic missiles emblazoned with the legend “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew is not the sort of reassuring conduct one would expect from a country that claims it wants better relations with the outside world. Timed to coincide with US Vice President Joe Biden’s tour of the Gulf states and Israel, the missile launches will not only be seen as an unnecessarily provocative act of aggression by countries like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.
They are also deeply embarrassing for the Obama administration, which is still trying to reassure its allies in the Gulf and Israel that its controversial nuclear deal with Tehran has ended Iranian attempts to build nuclear weapons – for the time being, at least. The fact remains that the real power in Iran lies with the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), whose duty is both to defend and export Iran’s revolutionary values throughout the Muslim world – with special focus on neighbouring Arab states.
Not only do the Revolutionary Guards control a significant percentage of the Iranian economy – including the country’s vast oil reserves. They are also responsible for Iran’s defence and security policy which, contrary to Washington’s confident predictions in the wake of the nuclear deal, has led to a significant upsurge in Iranian meddling in neighbouring Arab states. The fear now among pro-Western Arab leaders is that Iran will embark on a military build-up funded by the estimated $150 billion Tehran is set to receive as a result of the sanctions being lifted.
The missile tests will certainly be seen by many regional leaders in that context, particularly as many Western intelligence experts are convinced the missiles are being designed specifically to carry nuclear warheads. In addition to continuing to develop its ballistic missile programme, Tehran last month also concluded a deal with Russia to improve its missile defences. One of the more obvious failings of Mr Obama’s nuclear deal is that it allows Iran, a country which the CIA says once had an illicit nuclear weapons programme, to continue development work on its ballistic missiles.
But things are viewed differently in the Gulf. According to senior security officials I have spoken to recently in the region, there is no guarantee that Mr Obama’s deal will prevent Iran from continuing work on its nuclear weapons programme. As one senior defence official commented: “We know the Iranians well, and we know they have no intention of giving up their ambitions to acquire nuclear weapons.”
Not surprisingly, the Gulf states have now embarked on developing a multi-billion pound anti-missile shield of their own. If nothing else, Mr Obama’s legacy to the Middle East will have been to initiate a new arms race. In Israel, too, intelligence officials take the same view about Iran’s long-term nuclear ambitions, which no doubt explains Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent decision to cancel his proposed visit to Washington later this month.
The problem now is that if Washington is not prepared to take Iran’s continued acts of bellicosity seriously, there are plenty of Arab leaders who will. For the past two weeks Saudi Arabia has been hosting the Middle East’s biggest-ever military exercise – Operation Desert Thunder. An estimated 20 Muslim nations have taken part in the exercise which is aimed at strengthening the ability of the Saudi-led coalition to defend itself against the growing threat posed by Islamist-inspired terror groups, such as Daesh.
But the possibility should not be ruled out that one day these same forces could be used to defend Arab regimes from the threat posed by Iran. In Yemen, Saudi Arabia is already fighting a proxy war against Houthi rebels backed by Iran, while Riyadh has made no secret of its determination to secure the overthrow of the pro-Iranian regime of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Yet if Iran continues with unprovoked acts of aggression, such as its latest test-firing of ballistic missiles, then there is a genuine risk that Saudi Arabia and its allies will become involved in a direct, and far more dangerous, military confrontation with Iran.
— Courtesy: The Telegraph