Skip to main content

Can U.S. help Gulf shield itself against Iran?

By Patrick M. Cronin, Special to CNN
August 14, 2012 -- Updated 1758 GMT (0158 HKT)
An Iranian ground-to-sea missile is launched in January during navy war games near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran.
An Iranian ground-to-sea missile is launched in January during navy war games near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Patrick M. Cronin: Gulf Arab countries are cooperating on a missile shield against Iran
  • Cronin: U.S. is hoping to cover Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and United Arab Emirates
  • Cronin: Pentagon says Iran could test-flight an intercontinental missile as early as 2015
  • There are serious questions about how well Gulf states can collaborate, Cronin says

Editor's note: Patrick M. Cronin is senior adviser at the Center for a New American Security, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington.

(CNN) -- Advancements in Iranian missile capabilities are driving Gulf Arab countries to cooperate on a theater-wide missile defense system. The fear is that Iran could launch missiles at refineries, population centers, oil tankers and naval forces if conflict erupted. To deter and, if necessary, destroy Iranian missiles, the United States is championing a defense shield across the Arabian Peninsula, covering Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.

But pronouncements are easier to make than to realize in practice. Can these Gulf nations overcome their differences for their mutual protection? Is U.S. diplomacy sufficient to forge such collaboration?

The proposal occurs amid escalating tensions with Iran. Last year the International Atomic Energy Agency raised new concerns about Iran's secretive nuclear programs. Diplomacy failed to address these issues, prompting the United States and Europe to tighten sanctions against Iran's oil economy. While the Tehran regime ratchets up its rhetoric, senior U.S. officials are trying to forestall an Israeli pre-emptive attack on Iran's nuclear sites and to reassure Gulf leaders that a U.S.-led defensive umbrella would mitigate the effects of any conflict.

Patrick M. Cronin
Patrick M. Cronin

The United States has potent, seaborne Aegis anti-missile defenses to offer, and Israel and Saudi Arabia have previously invested in missile defense systems. Indeed, Saudi Arabia recently announced a major modernization of its Patriot Advanced Capability, or PAC-3, missile systems. But the latest scheme is a plan to build a regional network linking Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates into a wider intelligence and early-warning network, offering them defensive systems that can operate with U.S. Armed Forces.

Opinion: Romney on Iran is just like Obama

Recent multibillion-dollar deals include Kuwait's purchase of 60 new PAC-3 missiles and a variety of radars, control stations and launching stations; and the United Arab Emirates' deployment of both PAC-3 short-range interceptors and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, medium-range interceptors. Meanwhile, the United States has been beefing up defenses at its bases in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain (headquarters of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet) as well as erecting an early-warning radar system in Qatar.

The chaos in Syria adds urgency to these efforts. President Bashar al-Assad has threatened to fire missiles and chemical weapons against states that intervene in Syria's civil war, presumably including countries supporting future U.S. military activities.

U.S. citizen jailed in Iran for spying
Exposing loopholes in Iran sanctions
Official warns of Hezbollah planning

But while Syria may pose a threat to some in the region, theater missile defenses are primarily aimed at Iran's mounting military arsenal. Those growing capabilities include short-range missiles designed to hit sea-based targets as well as medium-range Shahab and Ghadr missiles.

Iran's missiles are mostly mobile and thus difficult to strike pre-emptively. The Pentagon estimates that Iran could test-flight an intercontinental missile, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, as early as 2015.

In the midst of these tensions, few would be shocked by a war with Iran. Indeed, many already see a low-level "shadow war" under way, with assassinations, terrorism, offensive cyberwarfare (including the use of the Stuxnet computer worm that infected Iran's nuclear enrichment facilities at Natanz), unmanned aerial vehicles and the use of special operations forces widely reported. The Iranians have threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz oil route, a move that could be accomplished by laying mines and targeting the narrow shipping chokepoint, or using swarm boat tactics to attack combat ships and tankers, or blowing up critical energy infrastructure that would be costly and difficult to replace.

In other words, any missile defenses would be part of a larger war, making it difficult to predict the various scenarios that might unfold in a prolonged, wider war with Iran.

Opinion: A lull in the drift toward war with Iran?

All these military measures would have to be tied to political goals. Yet an escalating conflict could easily lead to shifting war aims and mission creep. For example, the United States and its allies might seek regime change rather than just the eradication of Iran's nuclear program. Likewise, for the Iranian regime, objectives could encompass not just survival and sanction-busting but also a desire to inflict economic harm on the United States and threaten the viability of Israel.

Israel, with its Iron Dome and Arrow anti-ballistic missile defense systems, has the world's most robust national missile defenses in the world. Yet if Tehran acquires nuclear weapons, many Israelis believe the Iranians would use them as an offensive weapon and not just to achieve deterrence.

Israel's Iron Dome can protect against short-range missiles, and recently upgraded Arrow systems are designed to thwart advanced medium-range missiles. But reports are rampant that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu might pre-emptively strike Iran's nuclear facilities before the U.S. November elections. No doubt such reports are only further encouraging the Obama administration's intensive efforts to strengthen deterrence and reassure regional partners.

Opinion: What if Israel bombs Iran?

But it is unlikely that Israel and the Gulf Arab states can forge a seamless missile shield across a vast region. Indeed, there are serious questions about how well Gulf states can share information and act in concert.

What's new this past year is that five of the six-member states that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (Oman being the outlier) are attempting NATO-like security cooperation despite their different agendas and historical antipathies. Longstanding differences are unlikely to be bridged in a matter of months -- unless something forces them together.

No country is eager to blunder into war with Iran. At the same time, should conflict escalate, Iran's actions may drive disparate actors, even Gulf Arab states and Israel, to unprecedented collaboration for their mutual defense.

Follow us on Twitter: @CNNOpinion.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Patrick M. Cronin.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1259 GMT (2059 HKT)
You could be forgiven for thinking no one cares -- or even should care, right now -- about climate change, writes CNN's John Sutter. But you'd be mistaken.
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 2132 GMT (0532 HKT)
David Gergen says the White House's war against ISIS is getting off to a rough start and needs to be set right
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1300 GMT (2100 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1917 GMT (0317 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says making rude use of the Mexican flag on Mexican independence day in a concert in Mexico was extremely tasteless, but not an international incident.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1359 GMT (2159 HKT)
Michael Dunn is going to stand trial again after a jury was unable to reach a verdict; Mark O'Mara hopes for a fair trial.
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 22, 2014 -- Updated 1927 GMT (0327 HKT)
Laurence Steinberg says the high obesity rate among young children is worrisome for a host of reasons
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT