Editor’s Note: Kenneth Pollack answers questions from Bilal Saab of Arms Control and Regional Security for the Middle East, discussing the prospect of a regional missile defense system for the Arab Gulf, how the Arab Spring changed traditional security dynamics, and arms control in the Middle East.
Bilal Saab: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently proposed improved collaboration with GCC states on maritime security and missile defense to counter potential threats from Iran. One of the fruits that could come out of enhanced U.S.-GCC relations is a regional missile defense system for the Arab Gulf. How realistic is such a system knowing the classic challenges and limitations of missile defenses?
Kenneth Pollack: As you point out, we should not expect a whole lot in tangible terms from a regional missile defense system for the Gulf. Even with advances in recent years, such a system is likely to miss more than it hits. It might also be extremely expensive—and might not be the best use of such funds for countries (including the United States and Saudi Arabia) that probably would be better off using that money to address deep structural problems in their economies and societies. That said, if the costs are bearable, there are definitely some important plusses to going ahead with such a program. First, it provides another tangible sign that the GCC has no intention to bow down before a nuclear-armed Iran, but will instead balance against Tehran however they can. Second, it is another symbol of American commitment to the defense of the Gulf—something that many people worry about if Iran acquires a nuclear capability. Third, it would help further integrate the defense and security strategies of the Gulf Arab states and the United States in the Gulf. It would further smooth cooperation and be one more physical incentive for all of the states of the region to work and act in unison, and in lock-step with the United States, all of which would be helpful in deterring Iranian aggression, reassuring the Gulf Arabs, and ensuring cooperative moves both among the GCC states and between the GCC and U.S.
Saab: Calls for and discussions about a new regional security architecture are old. From the 1991 Gulf War to the Arab Spring, has anything changed in the Middle East to make that vision possible and what role should the United States play to make it happen?
Pollack: You are right that these ideas date back twenty years, and the original rationale for them remains germane: the GCC architecture is helpful, but it only takes you so far. In particularly, it isn’t of much help if your goal is to create a framework for arms control in the region and/or developing a more cooperative approach to security problems with Iran and Iraq. However, there are three things that have changed since the Persian Gulf War. First, Iran has made much greater progress toward acquiring a nuclear capability of some kind, and that is an important new threat that all of the Gulf States and the U.S. now must confront. Second, Saddam Husayn is gone, and Iraq is in the hands of a new leadership that everyone hopes will be more peaceful than he was. While the jury is still out on Iraqi stability, let alone aggressiveness, the nature of that threat has changed considerably and if Iraq somehow manages to stumble toward stability, it would be helpful for Iraqis, Gulf Arabs and Americans to find a way to deal with its security needs in a collaborative framework. Finally, the GCC states and the United States have made considerable progress in knitting together their communications, intelligence, air defense, and naval networks, which provides a strong foundation for further cooperation. So there is both a greater need and a greater potential for an expanded and transformed security architecture.
Most protests in Iran are over economic issues. What’s different is that it seems to have tapped into a deep sense of alienation and frustration, that people aren’t just demonstrating for better working conditions or pay, but insisting on wholesale rejection of the system itself.
[The Trump administration's travel ban is] an affront to all Iranians. You can’t tell Iranians that you have their back when they confront the regime if you’re not willing to let them in your country... If you’re uncertain about going to the streets, knowing that you have somewhere to go is possibly a small encouragement. Many Iranians came here after 2009.
My guess is that the Islamic Republic will ride [these protests] out, [but they will take a] toll on the legitimacy of the government as a whole [and] undercut [Rouhani's] credibility as a guy who can fix the economy.