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Missile Defense: 'Virtual' Issue Could Yield Real Results

Ground-to-ground Sajil missile launches from an undisclosed location in Iran
Ground-to-ground Sajil missile launches from an undisclosed location in Iran
Supporters of U.S. missile defense say the initiative is needed to make the world a safer place. Critics say it is an example of American arrogance and risks destabilizing the global strategic balance.

Washington's missile defense plans have kicked up clouds of controversy for years. What they haven't done is materialize into anything concrete.

Sites have been selected in Poland to install interceptor missiles and in the Czech Republic for a radar station. Beyond that, little progress has been made since George W. Bush in the spring of 2001 called for a "clear strategy to confront the threats of the 21st century" -- and allocated billions in Pentagon spending to make missile defense a reality.

U.S. President Barack Obama will now have to decide what to do with his predecessor's controversial project to deploy a interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar in the Czech Republic. He could press on with the plan and risk angering Russia. He could abandon it, and risk disappointing American security hawks.

Or, in a scenario many analysts see as likely, he could hold it as a valuable bargaining chip to be exchanged, when the time is right, for concessions from Moscow on NATO expansion, Afghanistan, Iran, or other issues seen as foreign policy priorities for the United States.

Bush and his supporters argued the program would protect the United States and its allies against "rogue nations" like North Korea and Iran accused of seeking a nuclear arsenal. But Moscow saw the plans as a specific threat against Russian security.

Not surprisingly, the plan quickly became one of the more contentious flash points in what proved a stormy eight years between Washington and Moscow. Russia even leveled its own threat to base Iskander missiles in its western Kaliningrad enclave.

Some analysts say that despite the bluster, missile defense is actually much ado about nothing, a sort of "virtual issue" in which the public posturing bears little resemblance to the actual concerns of the parties involved.

"The odd thing about missile defense is that for neither side is it quite as serious as they pretend," says longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, the Eastern European correspondent for the British weekly "The Economist" and author of the book "The New Cold War."

"For America this is a system that doesn't yet work being deployed against a threat that doesn't yet exist. And for the Russian side, this is something that can't really in any conceivable scenario actually make a difference to the strategic nuclear balance. Russia has thousands of nuclear warheads that it can launch to any part on the globe. And the idea that 10 interceptor rockets in Poland are going to make a difference is fanciful."

Let's Make A Deal

Moscow's real objection to missile defense, analysts say, is that it is a continuation of a humiliating post-Soviet trend that saw Moscow lose its empire in Eastern Europe, only to be replaced by the United States and NATO.

Washington has its own frustrations. It has long sought Moscow's help in curbing Iran's nuclear program -- a development that would make a missile-defense system in Europe less necessary -- but with only occasional success.
There was an almost ideological commitment on the part of the Bush administration to missile defense. I don't think this [Obama] administration has that commitment

Now, with Obama's pledge both to improve relations with Russia and to open direct negotiations with Iran, analysts say the time is ripe for Washington and Moscow to cut through the noise and reach some kind of agreement.

"There was an almost ideological commitment on the part of the Bush administration to missile defense," says Steven Pifer, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. "I don't think this [Obama] administration has that commitment. It is not ideological. It is prepared to take a fresh look at this."

The U.S. Embassy in Moscow confirmed on February 13 that U.S. Undersecretary of State William Burns said during a trip to Moscow this week that Washington is open to "a new configuration" on missile defense that would be amenable to Russia.

Although missile defense has remained a largely virtual initiative, there is a growing acknowledgement in both Washington and Moscow that it can be used to gain very real results.

The Czechs and Poles have already cashed in their cooperation on missile defense for visa-free travel to the United States and U.S. security assurances. And the Russians dropped their Kaliningrad missile plans in January, saying the decision was based on the fact the Americans had not opted to "speed up" their construction plans in Central Europe.

So far the administration has remained publicly supportive of the missile defense plan, but has also left itself sufficient wiggle room to eventually make a deal.

More and more, U.S. and Russian officials appear to be drawing a subtle link between missile defense and the six-year stalemate over Iran's nuclear program.

Fresh Approach

Speaking at a global security conference in Munich on February 7, U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden said Washington would "continue to develop missile defense to counter a growing Iranian capability," but only after the project was proven to be technologically sound and cost-effective.

Days later, on February 10, at a press conference with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg in Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested even more clearly that the Obama team may looking at missile defense as a bargaining chip in the Iranian nuclear debate.
U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden addresses the Munich Security Conference in February

"If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then we will reconsider where we stand [on missile defense]. But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change," Clinton said.

Russia is a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and its vote there is essential in imposing tough sanctions against Tehran. Russia also has extensive commercial contacts with Iran that can be used as leverage if Moscow so chooses.

At a press conference on February 11, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov hailed Obama's offer to hold direct talks with Iran, adding that the White House's "fresh approach" would help restart dialogue on the Iranian nuclear program.

Is Washington ready to trade in missile defense in exchange for a deal on Iran? Analysts see that as a distinct possibility.

"If [the United States is] going to offer something on missile defense, I would tie it to Iran," Pifer says. "Tell the Russians that we'll slow down the deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic if you can then [use your leverage to] slow down the Iranian missile threat. Then we can slow down Poland and the Czech Republic even more and extend a moratorium [on the deployment of the missile defense system] there."

Russia, however, may not be so keen to risk its relationship with Iran, which is emerging as a key partner for Moscow in a region where it has little influence.

"I think in the case of Iran, that is the only country along this southern periphery -- Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India -- where you don't have either American troops or some kind of a very strong U.S. relationship," says Paul Saunders, executive director of the Nixon Center think-tank in Washington. "It is really Moscow's main opportunity to have a partner -- probably not necessarily a friend, but certainly a good working relationship -- in that part of the world. Almost any deviation from the current status quo is going to make that harder for them to sustain."

Likewise, the Obama administration is likely to be very sensitive about appearing weak on foreign policy and will probably proceed with caution before abandoning missile defense without something substantive in return.

"The Obama-Biden administration is more vulnerable in U.S. circles on national security issues," says Nikolas Gvosdev is a professor of National Security Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. "They don't want to give the appearance that they are quote-unquote caving in to the Russians at this point."

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