Korea, the JCPOA, and the Shifting Military Balance in the Gulf
March 13, 2019
The Burke Chair is issuing a new detailed analysis of the lessons from recent negotiations with Korea, their implications for U.S. policy in dealing with the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran, and how Iran's other major military programs will affect the regional balance. This study is entitled Korea, the JCPOA, and the Shifting Military Balance in the Gulf, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://csis-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/190313_Korea_JCPOA_Lessons.pdf.
The analysis concludes that the sudden breakdown in the latest round of U.S.-Korean nuclear arms control talks in Vietnam should scarcely come as a surprise to anyone. Both sides sought too much too soon and did so despite a long history of previous failures. Heads of state engaged before their staffs had reached a clear compromise and did so seeking goals the other leader could not accept. It is not clear that an agreement was reachable at this point in time, but each side's search for its "best" ensured that the two sides could not compromise on the "good."
This failure sent yet another warning that agreements like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear arms agreement with Iran that offers major progress in limiting a nation's nuclear weapons efforts can be far better than no agreement, and of the danger in letting the perfect become the enemy of the good. The failed U.S. negotiations with Korea sends a warning that any set of compromises that preserves Iran's compliance with the JCPOA, and creates a structure where negotiation can continue, will be better than provoking a crisis with Iran that can end in no agreement at all and alienate America's European allies in the process.
At the same time, however, the U.S. cannot ignore the other key aspects of regional security, any more than it can safely ignore the need for high levels of deterrence and defense capability in Northeast Asia. The U.S. must look beyond the nuclear dimension in dealing with Iran and address the other changes taking place in the regional military balance.
At present, the U.S. and its strategic partners have a major advantage in total forces, modern arms, total military spending, and the transfer of modern military technology. Iran is still a relatively weak military power when its military capabilities are judged versus the total forces the U.S., its Arab Strategic partners, and its other partners can bring to bear.
However, even if Iran's nuclear weapons programs remain under control, Iran is making significant advances in three other areas that are causing major changes in the overall military balance in the Gulf and the MENA region:
- An Iranian shift from conventionally-armed, liquid-fueled, ballistic missiles with low accuracy to a mix of precision-strike liquid- and solid-fueled ballistic and cruise missiles and UCAVS.
- The steady build-up of Iranian naval-missile-air forces that can threaten shipping naval forces, and the flow of petroleum exports through the Gulf, the Strait of Hormuz, nearby waters in the Indian Ocean, and the Red Sea.
- The steady expansion of Iran's efforts to exploit the divisions and fault lines within the Arab world through ties with state and non-state actor groups, including: the Assad regime, Hezbollah, the Iraqi government, and the Houthis in Yemen for the purpose of conducting hybrid warfare.
The U.S. needs to address these changes in the balance and try to reduce the critical divisions between its Arab security partners. In an ideal world, it could seek some broader forms of arms control and regional security arrangements with Iran. In the real world, it must shift its focus from an ill-judged emphasis on burden sharing to creating the most effective mix of U.S. and partner defenses and deterrents as possible. This means proactive engagements with each security partner that encourage cooperation and interoperability and continued U.S. engagement in the region.
Note: The details of the military spending, arms transfer, and military balance summarized in this analysis are explored in depth in The Arab Gulf States and Iran: Military Spending, Modernization, and the Shifting Military Balance. This report is by Anthony H. Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy with the Assistance of Nicholas Harrington, and is available on the CSIS web site at https://www.csis.org/analysis/arab-gulf-states-and-iran-military-spending-modernization-and-shifting-military-balance.