SAUDI ARABIA took a step in the wrong direction when it recently bought medium-range ballistic missiles from China. The move is seen as an attempt to keep Iran from attacking Saudi Arabia, which backs Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war. Given past Iranian actions, that's a legitimate concern. But the Saudis may have bought less security than meets the eye. Their new weapons are more likely to be tempting military and political targets than secure deterrents.
With a range of between 1,700 and 2,200 miles, the missiles can travel farther than any yet fielded by any country in the region.
The Saudis say their arsenal is nuclear-free. But the missiles aren't accurate enough to deliver conventional warheads precisely enough to destroy hardened military targets. The threat of using conventional warheads against cities can hardly send tremors through Iran, which has shown a willingness to absorb blows from Iraqi missiles in its nearly eight-year-long war with Iraq. That leaves chemical weapons as the likely payload - weapons already used by Iraq against Iran. And still Iran keeps fighting.
If the missiles are an added annoyance to Iran, Israel sees them as a clear threat. Israeli leaders take little comfort in Saudi assurances that it has no nuclear weapons. If the assurances are true, that policy is still too vulnerable to changes in Saudi politics. In the near term, Israel is concerned that the Saudis will top the missiles with chemical weapons. And the Israelis say that even if Saudi Arabia gives assurances that it won't launch its missiles against Israel, the Saudis could transfer the missiles to another Arab country for launch, should war break out.
The situation poses foreign policy challenges for the United States. The most immediate concern is to encourage Israel to refrain from attacking the missile sites, while convincing the Saudis that possessing ballistic missiles poses more risks than benefits.
The former may be easier than the latter. Israel has been known to attack what it sees as potential threats before they become actual threats - as when the Israeli Air Force bombed a partly completed Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. But Saudi Arabia and the US have relatively close military and economic ties. The US and Iraq did not. Still, with Israeli elections looming in November, political pressure could build for a military response to the Saudi deployment.
As for the Saudis, they have grown increasingly irritated at Congress for refusing to fill their weapons shopping list. Congress's reluctance could grow. Not only would the new weapons be viewed as another threat to Israel. Press reports say that while the Saudis shopped for medium-range missiles in China, they misled US officials by telling them that they were trying to encourage China to stop selling missiles to Iran: So that China would not lose money, the Saudis would purchase Chinese weapons for Iraq.
Over the longer term, the US should try to encourage China and the Soviet Union to join in slowing the flow of ballistic missile technology. The Soviets have supplied shorter-range missiles to countries such as Libya, Syria, and Iraq.
In the meantime, the Saudis could help everyone breathe a little easier by quietly shipping the missiles back for a refund.