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Report Gives Obama A Potential Out On Missile Shield

  • Andrew Tully

A surface-to-surface Sejil missile before being launched at an undisclosed location in Iran in November.

A surface-to-surface Sejil missile before being launched at an undisclosed location in Iran in November.

WASHINGTON -- Iran's latest test of a rocket that it says can reach as far as Europe adds new urgency to the U.S. plan, initiated by former President George W. Bush, to build a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe.

Or does it?

The EastWest Institute (EWI) has issued a report written by a joint team of U.S. and Russian scientists and technical experts that says Iran isn't close to building either a nuclear warhead or a reliable missile to deliver one. That day, the think tank's report calculates, may be as much as a decade away.

"The [U.S. missile-defense] system was designed to only handle one or at most two missiles from Iran," says Phillip Coyle, a former weapons expert in the U.S. Defense Department and one of the scientists who contributed to the EWI report.

"If you want to believe that Iran would attack Europe, and you take the assumption that the Bush administration made that it would only launch one or maybe two missiles, and then sit back and wait for the consequences," Coyle says, laughing. "You know, that's hard to believe."

Coyle says that the U.S. and Russian scientists and experts worked together in part to assess as precisely as they could the nature of the Iranian threat. They concluded that a nuclear threat from Iran to Europe is not only not imminent, but there's no logical reason why such a threat should be perceived in the first place.

"Do you actually believe that Iran would be so suicidal that they would attack Europe with nuclear weapons?" asks Coyle, who is now a senior adviser to the Center for Defense Information, a Washington policy research center. "If Iran were ever to do something like that, it would be absolutely suicidal. It would justify a massive, massive retaliation.

"Personally, I don't believe that Iran is that crazy. Iran has done some reckless things, but I don't think they're suicidal."

Allay Russian Suspicions

Meanwhile, Coyle says, Russia has consistently opposed the U.S. defense shield, saying the placement of missiles in Poland and radar in the Czech Republic indicates that its real target is Russia. Moscow says it's not convinced by Washington's argument that it targets only so-called "rogue states" such as Iran.

The EWI report says the best way to allay Russian suspicions is for the United States to scrap the current plans and restart a missile-defense program in collaboration with Russia.

Coyle says locating the radar in Russia, as Vladimir Putin proposed when he was the Russian president, would improve the system for two important reasons.

Under the Obama administration, there have been signals that there is more flexibility with regard to the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"That would, first of all, solve the objections that Russia is currently making to the system proposed by President Bush," Coyle says. "And if Iran is crazy enough to attack Europe, the first thing you do is you attack the eyes of [the defense] system, the radar. Then what you're imagining is that Iran is not only crazy enough to attack Europe, but they'd also attack Russia.

"I don't think Russia would put up with that. And, again, the retaliation would just be massive."

Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and an arms-control specialist in the U.S. State Department, says that if the EWI report is correct, then the Obama administration has the flexibility to keep the missile-defense program on hold for now.

Pifer says the Obama administration itself has been providing further flexibility in its statements on the matter.

"Under the Obama administration, there have been signals that there is more flexibility with regard to the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic," Pifer says. "For example, [U.S. administration officials have] said publicly it has to be an effective system, it has to be cost-effective, it has to be appropriate to the threat. And they've put out some pretty big markers that if we can find a diplomatic way to persuade Iran not to pursue the nuclear program or the missile program, that removes the rationale for missile defense.

"There's a flexible attitude [in Washington] on the missile-defense installation in Central Europe that was not there in the previous administration."

Obama Has Time

Can Obama use the EWI study as part of an argument to convince doubters that rethinking the program isn't a sign of weakness?

"My own impression," Pifer says, "is [that officials in the Obama administration are] going to take a look at the merits on missile defense, and it'll be that policy review that allows the president to make a decision as to go forward or not, and how to discuss this with the Russians.

"But an argument that I was making and, I think, others were making before is: The administration has time. It can have further discussions with the Russians because what that report suggests is that the Iranian threat is right now [not effective until] 2017, 2018, 2019. That gives more time for diplomacy -- not only diplomacy with the Russians, but also diplomacy with Iran."

Where such an approach would leads with Iran is hard to say. But Pifer says he's confident it would go a long way to help repair the strained relations between Washington and Moscow.
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