The Middle East has a missile crisis driven by Iran’s quest for regional expansionism.
While reminders of Tehran’s malign influence can be found across the region, its most recent manifestation is particularly troublesome: The fourth Gaza war saw Hamas fire over 4,000 projectiles in 11 days of unprecedented barrages. When juxtaposed with Hamas’ 4,500 missiles fired over the course of 50 days back in the 2014 standoff, it is no surprise that military planners find such a marked increase rather unsettling.
Quantity is merely one dimension – the magnitude, reach, and precision of Hamas’ arsenal is witnessing an alarming uptick. In this latest confrontation, Hamas rolled out new weapons including unmanned submarine drones, attack drones, and the “Ayyash,” an unguided rocket with a 250-kilometer reach. These arsenals share a common origin: The Iranian regime and its ideological custodian, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The link is explicit enough to impel Hamas leadership to publically praise Iran for its support, ranging from engineering know-how to key contraband – including missiles.
Iran’s generous missile supply to its network of violent non-state proxy groups is part of a developing pattern across the region. Despite sanctions, rising internal discontent, and international backlash, the Iranian regime remains ideologically committed to training, equipping, and funding its destabilizing network of proxy groups across the region.
Houthi rebels in Yemen rely primarily on Iranian-supplied ballistic missiles and drones to conduct attacks against land-based targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE, while targeting critical shipping routes – such as the Bab el Mandeb Strait – that are central to global energy stability.
Among Iran’s ordnance on offer are anti-tank guided missiles, sea mines, aerial drones, 122-millimeter Katyusha rockets, ballistic missiles, Misagh-2 man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS), RDX high explosives, unmanned explosive boats, radar systems, and missile tech know-how. Tehran’s generous offerings are extended to neighboring Shia militias in Iraq against US forces and facilities on Iraqi military bases.
But arguably the largest, and most extensive menu is offered to Tehran’s Lebanese militia proxy Hezbollah. The terror group has amassed a variety of weapons including precision-guided missiles, M113 armored personnel carriers, T-72 main battle tanks, Karrar unmanned combat aerial vehicles, and Katyusha rocket launchers. Hezbollah’s armed drone capabilities are equally lethal, and, thanks to Tehran’s support, among the most advanced of any terrorist group in the world – its recent use of the Karrar armed drones is a case in hand.
These revisionist terror groups thrive off a regressively bloody and apocalyptic vision – one at explicit odds with regional stability, socio-economic development, and a rules-based global order. It has become glaringly clear that feeding the non-state proxy crocodile only whets its appetite – the sooner this reality is internalized by the international community, the better.
But there’s good news: The region’s geopolitical center of gravity is rapidly shifting from a zero-sum rivalry to the primacy of multilateral diplomatic dialogue. Tehran would be wise to engage in this unprecedented diplomatic overture and return to international norms, and with it a rules-based global order supported by proactive diplomatic dialogue – if not for regional stability, then at the very least to overcome its dismal state of economic suffocation and political isolation.
The region is experiencing a diplomatic spring, with serious potential to bloom into new era of cooperation wherein states form new friendships and strategically reexamine old ones. After approximately 10 years of frosty relations, Egypt and Turkey recently held their first high-level talks in hopes that bilateral ties will enter a period of thawing and ultimately, normalization. Similarly, Turkish diplomats are actively pursuing a positive strategic reset to their ties with a number of key regional powers.
The Saudi-led agreement reached at the historic AlUla GCC summit earlier this year marked a full return of diplomatic relations between Gulf states. Beyond reinvigorating a robust geostrategic bloc, the agreement turned the page on the past to a future where differences are transcended through diplomatic dialogue and strategic cooperation. Détentes, strategic dialogue, and rules-based multilateral order now reign superior across the region. This diplomatic spring – and COVID-induced strategic re-evaluation – offers Iran an unprecedented opportunity to overcome zero-sum differences and competition for influence, territory, and resources. Failing to recognize and act on the pervasive opportunities posed by the region’s geopolitical climate would be a reckless mistake by the Iranian regime.
Facts are stubborn things. No amount of state-sponsored obfuscation or obscurantist foreign policy can alter the reality of Iran’s missile crisis. As it stands today, Iranian rockets collectively cover an alarming 5,000-kilometer reach, spanning the world’s most vital trade routes. But, the region’s strategic shift is underway, and Tehran is faced with a choice to further deepen regional fissures, or strategically reevaluate its priorities beyond expansionism, militant proxies and destabilizing activities. The answer to the foregoing tradeoff should be straight forward – the onus is on the Iranian regime to act on this opportunity.