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Banning Long-Range Missiles in the Middle East: A First Step for Regional Arms Control
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By Michael Elleman

Although the goal of ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) is receiving increased attention, it remains a distant prospect. Achieving such an ambitious goal will require a series of incremental steps even to begin the process. An agreement that bans the development and possession of ballistic missiles capable of flying more than 3,000 kilometers and includes members of the Arab League, Iran, Israel, and Turkey is a reasonable first step toward a WMD-free Middle East.

Pursuit of a regional ban on these long-range missiles naturally would begin with negotiations, a process that by itself could help ease tensions, generate better understanding, and build trust across the region. An agreement on the ban, although modest in its aim, would yield a tangible result that sets a precedent and breaks some of the taboos surrounding arms control in the region. More importantly, perhaps, the successful implementation of the agreement would create new bureaucracies that advocate for disarmament and institutions that assume responsibility for the implementation of arms reduction measures. At a minimum, the region would be one step closer to ridding itself of the world’s most dangerous weapons.

The proposed ban is achievable principally because it would not impinge on the core security interests of any country in the region. No state would be asked to relinquish its capacity to defend against or deter a regional rival, and few states in the Middle East face threats from outside the region. The one exception might be Iran, with its concerns about the United States. Yet, the United States has key interests, allies, and military bases throughout the region that could be held at risk by Tehran’s current missile arsenal.

Moreover, outside powers are likely to embrace and promote the regional missile ban and may go as far as pressuring reluctant regional actors to agree to the prohibition because it serves their individual and collective national security interests. The ban eliminates the threat to Europe posed by missile proliferation in the Middle East. In addition, the absence of intermediate-range and intercontinental missiles capable of reaching major portions of Europe would reduce NATO-Russian tensions by obviating the need to deploy the latter two phases of the European Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense, which Moscow fears could degrade Russia’s strategic nuclear deterrent.[1]

A regional ban necessarily would consist of two complementary components. The first implements measures to prevent the development of intermediate-range missiles in countries within the region that do not already have them. The second verifiably eliminates current stocks of missiles that exceed the proposed range limit.

Presently, only three countries in the region have the technical wherewithal and industrial capacity to develop intermediate-range missiles. Israel, according to media reports, already fields the medium-range Jericho-2 and possibly the intermediate-range Jericho-3 missiles that are believed to have been manufactured domestically.[2] Iran is actively developing the Sajjil-2, which has a range of 2,000 kilometers.[3] The experience and knowledge accrued in developing the Sajjil-2 provide Iran with the means to build viable, long-range missiles in the future.[4] Turkey could create the capability if it invested the proper money and time into the effort. Egypt, Iraq, and Syria have pursued short-range ballistic missile development programs in the past. Yet, there is no evidence to suggest they seek to create longer-range systems in the near to medium term, nor do any of these countries have the technical capacity to support development of an intermediate-range missile for the foreseeable future. Finally, one country, Saudi Arabia, has purchased intermediate-range missiles from a foreign source, in 1988 when Riyadh imported DF-3 systems from China.[5]

Preventing New Capabilities

Countries wishing to create new ballistic missiles, with or without foreign assistance, must undertake extensive flight-test programs as part of the development process to validate performance parameters, verify reliability under a wide range of operational conditions, correct inevitable design flaws, and train military forces to operate the missile. Flight tests, which cannot be concealed, provide outside observers the data needed to characterize missiles under development and to forecast future capabilities with considerable confidence.

An in-depth review of ballistic missile development programs undertaken worldwide over the past seven decades, most notably those conducted by China, France, Germany, India, Iran, Iraq, the former Soviet Union, and the United States, reveals that flight testing involves at least a dozen launches, often many more.[6] Germany, for example, flight-tested more than 300 A-4 (V-2) missiles before it began firing them at targets in western Europe during the closing months of World War II. France averaged about two dozen test launches when developing each of its ground- and sea-based strategic missiles. The United States and the Soviet Union/Russia test-fired considerably more for a majority of the missile systems they made operational during and after the Cold War. China used 18 flight tests during the development of the JL-1 missile. Even Iraq, during its war with Iran in the 1980s, when striking Tehran was viewed as an immediate strategic imperative, tested the 600 kilometer-range al-Hussein missile 10 times over a two-year period before using it against the more distant cities in Iran. The al-Hussein was not even a new missile, developed from fundamentals. Rather, it was a modified missile made from Soviet-produced Scud components.

Historical data also show that flight-testing campaigns associated with the development of new missiles require three to five years to complete. There were exceptions, but they were rare, involved minor modifications to existing systems, included multiple tests per month, and were performed by countries with rich experience developing missiles. These conditions do not exist in Iran, Turkey, or other countries in the Middle East today and will not exist in the coming decade. In any event, when the few exceptions did transpire, the minimum time, regardless of circumstances, was still about two years.

The need to conduct flight-test programs to develop an operational system suggests that if the countries in the region could be persuaded to forgo such activities, no country could create and field longer-range systems without assuming considerable if not excessive technical and operational risk. There is nothing in Iran’s history of missile development, for instance, to suggest that it would accept such risks. Tehran did not induct the Shahab-3 into military service until 2003, five years after receiving Nodong missiles from North Korea and initiating test launches. Modifications to extend the range of the Shahab-3, resulting in the 1,600 kilometer-range Ghadr-1, required three to five additional years of testing. Development of the Sajjil-2, which continues today, has been ongoing since it was first flight-tested in late 2007. The caution Iran has exhibited while developing conventionally armed missiles suggests convincingly that if it were to fashion a small nuclear arsenal, it would not fit the highly prized payloads to missiles with unproven performance or reliability. In addition, there is no evidence to suggest Israel, Turkey, or any other state in the region could defy the history experienced by others.

The testing requirement should be exploited to promote a regional flight-test ban on intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. The range-payload characteristics of an intermediate-range missile would have to be defined by all of the parties involved in the final agreement, although an envelope of 3,000 kilometers and 500 kilograms seems reasonable.

Space launch vehicles, which Iran, Israel, and others, including North Korea, are unlikely to relinquish, would not be included in the proposed regime. Although it is certainly true that space launchers and ballistic missiles are founded on similar technologies, there are fundamental differences between the two systems. Space launchers are prepared for flight over a period of many days, if not weeks. Components and subsystems can be checked and verified prior to launch, and the mission commander can wait for ideal weather before initiating the countdown. If an anomaly is encountered during the countdown, the launch can be delayed, the problem fixed, and the process restarted. Ballistic missiles, on the other hand, must perform reliably under a variety of operational conditions and with little advance notification, like any other military system. These operational requirements must be validated through an extensive test program before a missile can be declared combat ready.

Although space launch activities offer an opportunity to accumulate some of the experience and data that could aid efforts to develop long-range ballistic missiles, the results have limited application to ballistic missiles. Only a fraction of the overall development issues can be addressed when operating the system as a satellite launcher. Converting a proven space launcher into a ballistic missile would still require two to five years of additional testing in the ballistic missile mode. In fact, the universal trend has been to convert ballistic missiles into space launchers, not the opposite. The Soviets, for example, used the R-7 intercontinental missile to launch its first satellite, Sputnik, in 1957. Likewise, the U.S. Redstone missile was modified and used to place into orbit the Explorer-1 satellite a few months after the unprecedented Soviet success. The Chinese CZ-2 launch vehicle was founded on the DF-3 ballistic missile technology and components.

Space launches, however, cannot be ignored and must be closely monitored by states within the region, as well as outside powers, precisely because they could contribute to a missile development program by offering validation of fundamental concepts, such as those for propulsion systems, stage separation, and testing procedures. Consequently, countries that insist on developing and operating space launchers must conduct these activities with maximum transparency to avoid suspicion. The protocols established under the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation could serve as an initial foundation for promoting transparency and trust among all parties adhering to the regional ban on intermediate-range missiles.

States in the Middle East could go further and establish a monitoring authority to oversee space-related activities within the region and perhaps facilitate reciprocal visits by member states to observe launch activities. To ensure compliance by member states, Russia and the United States could share data from their respective sensor networks with the monitoring authority. Indeed, the monitoring authority could serve as a verification center for the broader ban on intermediate-range flight tests. Participation by Russia and the United States would be key, as they are the only two countries with the suite of space-based sensors and ground-based radars capable of detecting and tracking ballistic missile tests or space launches from the Middle East.

Reaching agreement on a regional prohibition on flight-testing intermediate-range missiles is not an insurmountable task. Iran has publicly declared that it has no interest in developing a missile capable of distances of more than 2,000 kilometers. As recently as July 2011, Commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aerospace division, insisted to Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency in Iran that “the range of our missiles has been designed based on American bases in the region as well as the Zionist regime,” adding that “the Americans have reduced our labours.… [T]heir military bases in the region are in a range of 130, 250 and maximum 700 km in Afghanistan which we can hit with [our presently available] missiles.”[7] Of course, there are valid reasons for doubting Hajizadeh’s words. Yet, when one considers Iran’s strategic priorities, his claims seem reasonable. Iran’s most distant strategic target is Israel, about 1,000 kilometers from launching points near Iran’s border with Iraq. Operational security and prelaunch survivability, however, demand deployment zones far from the border. Extending the minimum range requirement to roughly 1,600 kilometers, as Iran has achieved with the Ghadr-1, facilitates the launch of missiles from secure locations in the heart of Iranian territory. The Sajjil-2, once developed fully, will have a similar range capability when carrying significantly heavier payloads of up to 1,300 kilograms.

Iran might dismiss or reject a ban on intermediate-range missile tests as an infringement on its sovereign rights. Taking such action, however, would turn the country’s nuclear diplomacy on its head. Iran already is the only country to have pursued development of a 2,000 kilometer-range missile, the Sajjil-2, without first having acquired nuclear weapons. Seeking still-longer-range delivery vehicles only would increase existing doubts about Iran’s nuclear intentions.

Iran might attempt to hedge or delay acceptance of a regional test ban by insisting that Israel and Saudi Arabia first verifiably eliminate their respective Jericho-3 and DF-3 missiles. Convincing Israel and Saudi Arabia to accept such plans will not be easy and cannot be assured. Nevertheless, success could be achieved if the incentives and diplomatic pressures were sufficient.

Israel and the Jericho-3

Surprisingly, persuading Israel to relinquish its intermediate-range ballistic missiles might be easier than convincing Saudi Arabia to part with its DF-3s. Israel presently has little strategic imperative for deploying missiles with a range greater than 3,000 kilometers, as the primary threats to the country reside within the Middle East. The whole of Iran, for instance, can be covered by Israeli missiles with a range of 2,800 kilometers. Moreover, Israel maintains a range of delivery options for its strategic payloads and need not rely on ballistic missiles to deter distant rivals.

Israel’s fleet of advanced fighter-bomber aircraft, which consists of roughly 80 F-15s and 300 F-16s, has no war-fighting rival in the Middle East. The aircraft are operated by the best-trained pilots in the region and carry sophisticated avionics packages that can defeat the air defense systems of any adversary in the region. Its airborne refueling capacity enables Israel to strike targets well beyond the combat radius of the F-15s and F-16s. The long-standing strategic U.S. commitment to the country ensures that Israel will not have a conventional military peer within the region. Washington’s promise to transfer to Israel its most advanced aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, once available, is one example of the pledge.[8]

Israel also maintains a second-strike force consisting of submarine-launched cruise missiles.[9] The fleet includes three diesel-electric powered submarines built in Germany for the Israeli navy. Each submarine is believed to carry a handful of Popeye or Popeye-Turbo cruise missiles. There is considerable debate about the performance capabilities of the Popeye-Turbo, but it appears certain that the missile has the capacity to deliver the small 200- to 300-kilogram nuclear payloads Israel is believed to have manufactured.[10] Two more submarines are under procurement, with scheduled deliveries of 2013 and 2014.[11] Once all five submarines reach operational status, Israel would have at least two boats on patrol at any given moment.

Ballistic missiles afford Israel a third weapons delivery option, but there is some uncertainty about what systems have been deployed and how they perform. The Jericho-1 was designed, developed, and tested by the French firm Marcel Dassault Aviation in the late 1960s, and either the missiles, the technology, or both were transferred to Israel for deployment in the early 1970s.[12] The Jericho-1 is thought to have a maximum range of 480 to 750 kilometers, with a reported payload capacity of 500 to 1,000 kilograms.[13] A technical assessment of the Jericho-1 suggests the missile has a 500-kilometer range when carrying a 750-kilogram payload.

The Jericho-1 missiles are likely obsolete. There are persistent reports that Israel replaced them with the two-stage, solid-propellant Jericho-2, whose development likely began in the late 1970s or early 1980s. Flight testing commenced in 1986, with initial deployment around 1990. Reports claim the Jericho-2 has a maximum range of 1,500 kilometers when fitted with a 1,000-kilogram warhead. However, based on the Jericho-2’s dimensions and the likely propellant loads and type, the missile should have a range of roughly 2,500 to 2,800 kilometers. Israel’s Shavit space launcher appears to be derived from Jericho-2 technology and components.

Some reports suggest that Israel has worked to create a three-stage Jericho-3 missile. Such a missile would significantly extend Israel’s strategic reach to well beyond 3,000 kilometers. Two flight tests of the Jericho-3 have been reported, one in 2008 and another in 2011.[14] The minimal number of flight tests suggests that the Jericho-3 is not combat ready. Adding to the mystery surrounding the Jericho-3 is the possibility that the two firings were satellite launches and not missile tests. Whether the Jericho-3 exists is somewhat irrelevant, as Israel certainly has the technical and industrial wherewithal to develop the missile.

As discussed above, the diverse mix of strategic delivery options offers Israel considerable flexibility, and subtracting intermediate-range ballistic missiles is unlikely to degrade the country’s nuclear deterrence capabilities. Israeli acceptance of a regional ban on intermediate-range ballistic missiles seems feasible, especially if it is sold as a first step in a comprehensive effort to halt the Iranian nuclear program through the more ambitious WMD-free-zone concept. A U.S. offer of increased financial and operational assistance to Israel’s extant missile defense programs and continued supply of advanced military technology, including the F-35, should help induce Israel’s acceptance of the regional prohibition.

Convincing Saudi Arabia

As explained above, neither Iran nor Israel appears to hold compelling military or strategic imperatives that demand intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The strategic calculus in Riyadh, however, is less clear. Convincing the Saudis to relinquish their DF-3 missiles may prove to be the most difficult challenge to achieving the ban.

In 1988, Saudi Arabia purchased 30 to 50 conventionally armed DF-3 (CSS-2) intermediate-range missiles from China. Negotiations with Beijing reportedly began soon after the United States refused in 1985 to supply the Saudis with short-range Lance ballistic missiles and an additional 40 F-15 fighters. The DF-3 was not intended to fill a gap created by the U.S. refusal to supply the Lance, a battlefield missile with a range of about 100 kilometers. Rather, as the Saudis claimed at the time of purchase, the DF-3s were acquired to deter Iran and other potential adversaries in the Middle East. Given Saudi fears at the time of purchase that Iran would widen the war with Iraq by attacking targets in the kingdom or one of its Gulf Cooperation Council allies, this rationale is not implausible. The Saudi decision may have also been driven by country’s pattern of acquiring advanced weapons, both symbolic and militarily useful systems, to enhance its international status and establish itself as a major regional power.

The single-stage, liquid-propellant DF-3 has a maximum range of roughly 2,600 kilometers when carrying a warhead weighing slightly more than 2,000 kilograms. When armed with a 1,000-kilogram payload, however, the range grows to about 3,100 kilometers, which exceeds the proposed limit.

Saudi Arabia is rumored to have recently acquired two-stage, solid-propellant DF-21 or Shaheen-2 missiles from China or Pakistan, respectively.[15] The DF-21 and Shaheen-2 missiles are more accurate and reliable than their DF-3 counterparts, they are easier to maintain and operate, and they offer greater mobility, which enhances prelaunch survivability. Upgrading the arsenal with the more modern missiles also bestows greater prestige on Saudi Arabia, although the newer missiles have a reduced range capability. Nonetheless, if the rumors are accurate, it seems reasonable to conclude that Saudi Arabia is in the process of replacing its obsolete DF-3s with 2,000 kilometer-range DF-21 or Shaheen-2 missiles, in which case Riyadh could painlessly decide to scrap the DF-3s altogether, unilaterally or in conjunction with the proposed intermediate-range missile ban.

If the rumors are inaccurate, Riyadh may hesitate to accept a deal that does not yield a replacement capability. Because the DF-3s are old and likely no longer serviceable, even with continued Chinese maintenance efforts, the Saudis might be convinced to eliminate the missiles if they are promised additional fighter-bomber aircraft and advanced missile defense systems. A military assistance package that includes the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and the Aegis Ashore system, with its Standard Missile-3 interceptors, might prove too tempting to refuse. Yet, even with such inducements, Saudi Arabia may be reluctant to forfeit the DF-3 because of its symbolic value.

Moving Forward

The international community, perhaps led by China, Russia, the United States, and key member states of the European Union, should seek to persuade countries in the Middle East to negotiate and agree to a verifiable regime that prohibits the possession or flight testing of intermediate-range and intercontinental ballistic missiles. As outlined above, a combination of incentive packages and diplomatic pressure almost certainly will be required, but the precise nature of the inducements will not become clear until the key parties from the Middle East begin negotiations and define their objectives and concerns.

Russia and the United States could begin by offering to create jointly the foundations of a regional monitoring authority whose initial purpose would be to house data on missile and space launches from the region. At first, the database would consist of information gathered by Russian and U.S. sensors and might later be augmented by voluntary submissions to the monitoring authority from countries within the region. The transparency created by the monitoring authority could be used to build a minimal level of trust, from which negotiations on the basic parameters of a ban on long-range missiles could begin.

In addition to the diplomatic benefits of contributing to the successful conclusion of a sensitive negotiation, Russia and the United States could gain security benefits from participating. A verifiable ban on long-range missiles would remove most or all of the basis for the planned deployment of the later phases of the U.S.-NATO missile defense system in Europe. U.S.-Russian disagreements over European missile defense currently are an irritant to U.S.-Russian relations and, in particular, are a major obstacle to further arms reductions.

The negotiations on a Middle Eastern missile agreement undoubtedly will be difficult, as many issues bedevil relations in the Middle East beyond ballistic missile inventories. The lack of peace between Israel and Palestine, historical enmities, territorial and sectarian disputes, and asymmetries in military capabilities are just a few of the issues that could derail progress on a missile agreement.

The United States and the Soviet Union also faced seemingly insurmountable challenges during the height of the Cold War, yet both parties found it in their respective interests to work together on arms control. Sharing their experiences in negotiating arms control measures is one contribution that Russia and the United States could make to the WMD-free zone, although the lessons learned during the Cold War have limited application to the conditions and dynamics of the Middle East. Indeed, the additional complexities underline the importance of finding a measure that does not collide with long-standing security tenets of any of the affected states and therefore can serve as a first step in what undoubtedly will be a long and tortuous path to a WMD-free Middle East.

Michael Elleman is senior fellow for regional security cooperation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and is principal author of “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment” (2010). He spent 20 years developing ballistic missiles at Lockheed Martin Corp. before joining the UN Monitoring, Verification and Inspection Commission as a missile expert for weapons inspection missions in Iraq. From 1995 to 2001, he led a Cooperative Threat Reduction program in Russia aimed at dismantling obsolete strategic missiles.


1. For an analysis of the Phased Adaptive Approach and its effectiveness against the current and future Russian deterrent, see Dean A. Wilkening, “Does Missile Defence in Europe Threaten Russia?” Survival, Vol. 54, No. 1 (February-March 2012): 31-52.

2. Andrew Feickert, “Missile Survey: Ballistic and Cruise Missiles of Foreign Countries,” CRS Report for Congress, RL30427, March 5, 2004.

3. There is no internationally recognized missile classification scheme. For the purposes of this article, ballistic missiles are categorized into four classes: short-range missiles are capable of traveling distances of 1,000 kilometers; medium-range missiles, between 1,000 and 3,000 kilometers; intermediate-range missiles, between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers; and intercontinental ballistic missiles, more than 5,500 kilometers. For the purposes of this article, “long-range” missiles are those that exceed the proposed limit of 3,000 kilometers.

4. International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment,” 2010.

5. Jim Mann, “U.S. Caught Napping by Sino-Saudi Missile Deal,” Los Angeles Times, May 4, 1988, p. 1.

6. For details, see IISS, “Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities,” ch. 3.

7. Parisa Hafezi, “Iran Fires 14 Missiles in 2nd Day of War Games,” Reuters, June 28, 2011.

8. Alon Ben-David, Amy Butler, and Robert Wall, “Israel, U.S. Strike F-35 Technology Deal,” Aviation Week, July 7, 2011.

9. James Hackett, ed., The Military Balance (London: IISS, 2010).

10. Uzi Mahnaimi and Matthew Campbell, “Israel Makes Nuclear Waves With Submarine Missile Test,” London Sunday Times, June 18, 2000.

11. “Germany Sells Israel More Dolphin Subs,” Defense Industry Daily, February 6, 2012, http://www.defenseindustrydaily.com/germany-may-sell-2-more-dolphin-subs-to-israel-for-117b-01528/.

12. “Dassault Lève Le Voile Sur Le Missile Jericho” [Dassault lifts the lid on the Jericho missile story], Air & Cosmos, December 6, 1996, p. 36.

13. See, for example, GlobalSecurity.org, “Weapons of Mass Destruction,” July 24, 2011, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/israel/missile.htm; Nuclear Threat Initiative, “Israel: Missile,” November 2011, http://www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Israel/Missile/index.html.

14. Yuval Azoulay, “Missile Test ‘Will Improve Deterrence,’” Haaretz, January 18, 2008; Anshel Pfeffer and Reuters, “IDF Test-Fires Ballistic Missile in Central Israel,” Haaretz, November 2, 2011.

15. GlobalSecurity.org, “Saudi Arabia Special Weapons,” July 24, 2011, http://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/world/saudi/index.html; Jeffrey Lewis, “Saudi Missile Claims,” Arms Control Wonk, June 8, 2010, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com/archive/2761/china-and-saudi-bms.

Posted: May 2, 2012