Even as United Nations inspectors resume their work in Iraq, rooting out Saddam Hussein's illegal weapons programs, the spread of ballistic missiles is adding more destructive power to the most militarized part of the world.
Eight Mideast nations already have as many as 2,000 missiles in a region so tightly packed that even short-range "tactical" missiles have a large impact on the military balance. These missiles can deliver all the headline-grabbing nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, making them of vital importance.
The latest example of how these missiles are shaping the strategic balance of the Middle East has emerged from Israel. Intelligence leaks point to "massive" Russian help for Iran's ballistic-missile programs that may yield new a missile in 12 to 18 months that can hit Israel.
For Israel, a country that was the target of 39 Scud missiles during the Gulf War, that threat seems very real. There is still no effective defense against such weapons.
"The nations of the Middle East are holding loaded guns at each other's hearts, without the benefit of body armor," says Uzi Rubin, the head of Israel's Missile Defense Organization, which is building the joint US-Israel "Arrow" antimissile project.
"The ballistic missile is the only weapon in the world today with no defense," he told a recent meeting of missile experts at The Galili Center for Strategy and National Security in Tel Aviv. "You can defend against aircraft, submarines, and tanks, but you can't defeat a ballistic missile."
Now the threat is coming into play again. "If it depends on us, and if it will be strategically possible from a political and security aspect ... we shall seek to preempt and strike at those systems which threaten to harm us," Israeli Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai told the meeting.
Vice President Al Gore has said that Iran is making an "obvious ... vigorous effort" to build longer-range missiles and raised the point of Russian complicity with Moscow. Senior Russian officials deny that they are helping Iran, which would violate terms of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime. Russia joined the MTCR in 1995, but "leakage" from its own vast, underpaid store of experts is likely.
Despite pressure for action against Russia from the pro-Israel lobby in Washington, however, the Russian involvement has created a problem. By law, anyone selling such technology to Iran is meant to be hit with US sanctions, and top Russian military and space officials - whose programs receive US assistance - have been named.
Iran has worked for years on joint missile programs with North Korea and others. Though Iran spends little on defense compared with its neighbors, it has helped finance North Korea's No Dong missile project in exchange for its own copies of the 620-mile-range missile.
Though the No Dong project appears to have stalled, analysts say, Israeli intelligence sources say Iran has been working on its own sophisticated missile. The Shahab-3 and -4 are said to range up to 1,240 miles, which would bring much of eastern Europe, Russia, and China into range - as well as the 20,000 American troops in the Persian Gulf who are already within range of shorter-range Iranian missiles.
Missiles in war are not new. The first recorded use came in China during a siege in 1232 to burn tents and wicker fortifications, notes Joseph Cirincione, a senior missile defense expert at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington.
Efforts to defend against missiles began after Germany used V-2 rockets during World War II, he adds. The US alone has spent $100 billion to find a solution since the 1950s. Still, the US Army says that the Patriot batteries deployed in the Gulf War may only have only been effective against 9 percent of the Iraqi warheads they were meant to destroy. And a major effort by the US Air Force was unable to destroy a single mobile Scud launcher in 1,500 sorties.
"At this point, US forces cannot reliably intercept even short-range Scuds encountered in the Gulf War," Mr. Cirincione says. "Still years away are tests that would put missile defense up against realistic threats that employ warheads with decoys or jammers or that take minor twists and turns as they reenter the earth's atmosphere...."
Israel is especially vulnerable to this inability to defend, though it has the only nuclear arsenal in the Mideast, with an estimated 200 weapons, as well as the most sophisticated ballistic-missile capability.
"By being vulnerable to a ballistic missile with a crude nuclear device, Israel may be forced to launch a preemptive nuclear strike rather than risk losing its ability to respond with nuclear weapons," notes analyst Harold Hough in the London-based Jane's Intelligence Review.
Current anxiety about Iran, however, seems to overlook the fact that Syria has had missiles for years that could strike anywhere in Israel. These are tipped with warheads from Syria's sophisticated chemical-weapons arsenal.
Israel's and Syria's strategy of mutual deterrence has worked, leaving a cold-war-style balance. Such a scenario doesn't apply to Iran because, unlike Syria, it can't respond directly to any Israeli first strike.
But the fallout from such a strike is what has held Israeli leaders back before. It would destabilize the Gulf region, where the US has significant allies and an oil interest, and it would likely spawn an unconventional response, such as a terrorist attack.
Iran has no other way of fighting back, except through the Iran-backed Hizbullah guerrillas in southern Lebanon, who are fighting to push out Israeli troops there.
On Iranian missiles, Israel may also have to rely on deterrence. As Israel's Mr. Mordechai warns: "We have the ability to harm those who harm our vital interests and they need to expect that we will extract a heavy price [if attacked]."
Still, it is "impossible" to do more than delay sensitive technology transfers, says Zeev Bonen, former head of the Israeli Aircraft Industries.
He predicts a "long period of supremacy of missile attack," which he calls a "phenomenon similar to the supremacy of the tank [on the battlefield], which lasted for over half a century."