And he said those surprises could come from states like North Korea, which has made unexpectedly rapid progress in developing its missile capabilities over the past decade.
"In 1998, there were experts around the world and the community that were saying that the North Koreans were years and years away from being able to develop a long-range missile," Obering said. "The next month, they did so. They fired a Taepodong-1 that actually overflew Japan. It was a three-stage missile -- that also shocked a lot of experts -- and they were able to show that they could stage; they could control the missile through staging. They had all the building blocks of an intercontinental ballistic missile [ICBM]."
Obering cited Iran as another country hostile to Washington that is making rapid progress. "I will tell you that what we see happening in Iran is following down that same path in terms of growth and in terms of their stated intent, for example, to be able to launch a space-launch vehicle," he said. "If you're able to launch a space-launch vehicle, you have also demonstrated all of the basic building blocks for a long-range ICBM. In terms of the actual timing, we want to make sure that we have a defense in place before that occurs."
Washington says it wants its missile shield to include facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic. Under the proposal, rockets capable of shooting down hostile missiles would be based in Poland while a radar tracking system would be based in the Czech Republic.
Russia Warns Of New Cold War
But Moscow strongly objects. Russian officials say they are not convinced the target is really missiles from what Washington regards as rogue states. Instead, they accuse Washington of trying to build up its military presence in Central Europe in an act reminiscent of the Cold War.
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Daniel Fried, the other U.S. official at the February 22 briefing, said Moscow has nothing to fear from the proposed shield.
"The political benefit from greater security is obvious. The political risk from insecurity, should the Iranian threat develop as it might, is also obvious," Fried said. "This system is no good against the Russian ballistic-missile capability. It has the potential to be effective against the Iranian threat, and the benefits to Europe are clear.
"I should say, though, with respect to Poland and the Czech Republic, that we have gone through some preliminary discussions, but we haven't started negotiating the details," he added. "The Poles and Czechs are going to have a lot of very legitimate questions."
Fried said questions remaining to be resolved with the Czechs and the Poles include military, financial, and legal issues.
Threat Has Changed
The two U.S. officials said Moscow must recognize that the dangers the United States faces from missiles today are very different than in the past. Obering said he has discussed that matter with General Yury Baluyevsky, chief of the Russian General Staff, who recently warned the shield could provoke an arms race.
"But as I said before, we have been facing the Russians in the past and we have been allies with the Russians in the past," Obering said. "And as far as I'm concerned, nothing has changed with respect to that relationship. What has changed is the threat that we see emerging from the Middle East."
Asked whether there are plans for placing similar new antimissile facilities in other parts of Europe formerly within the Soviet sphere, specifically Bulgaria and Romania, Obering said that at present there are no such plans.
The Arak heavy-water plant in central Iran (Fars)
BENDING THE RULES. Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told an RFE/RL-Radio Free Asia briefing on January 9 that the West is hamstrung in dealing with Iran and North Korea because of the way it has interpreted the international nonproliferation regime to benefit friendly countries like India and Japan.
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