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Missile shield plan

September 17, 2009

Scrapping the US missile shield project has more to do with Iran than just its perceived lack of current threat, say experts. Removing the barrier to dialogue with Russia could give the US a powerful ally against Tehran.

President Obama in front of the Iranian flag
Obama hopes for Russian support for his policy on IranImage: picture-alliance/ dpa / DW-Montage

President Barack Obama is preparing to scrap the previous US administration’s plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, one of George W. Bush's most controversial legacies.

Citing officials familiar with the plan, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the Obama administration's information on the current scale and progress of Iran's missile development program is slower and less widespread than first thought.

The threat from Iranian nuclear-armed missiles capable of reaching the United States over Europe was one of the main justifications for the shield.

The White House now believes that Iran has been slower in building long-range missiles and that the threat is now far less immediate and as a result, the Bush-era missile defense project can be halted. The research into Iran's capabilities and the evidence which justifies the scrapping of the plan is due to presented in a report published next week.

Dr. Karl-Heinz Kamp, the research director at the NATO Defense College in Rome, told Deutsche Welle that the US decision would leave many experts, himself included, confused, specifically on the topic of Iran's threat.

Contradictons in messages over Iran

Pictures of the Iranian television network Al-Alam shows the launch of the upgraded version of the Iranian Shahab-3 missile in southern Iran, 09 July 2008.
Iran's Shahab-3 missile has a range of up to 2,000 kmImage: picture-alliance / dpa

"This decision will be very hard for some to understand," he said. "On the one hand, you have the Obama administration saying that Iran is not as much of a threat as before, and therefore there is no need for the defense shield. On the other, the official White House line is that Iran is still actively pursuing its nuclear program and is not willing to abandon this."

Kamp believes Iran features in the reasoning behind the scrapping of the plan, but not in the way being presented by the Obama administration.

"This decision is being taken with relations with Russia in mind," he said. "By scrapping the shield, the US removes a huge barrier to relations and will clear the way for improvements and the much-touted pressing of the reset button. However, the other reason is the US hope that by removing the shield, it can persuade Russia to take a stronger anti-Iran stance. But there are risks here. No one is sure that Russia will respond by supporting US pressure on Iran and secondly, whether Iran would take any notice even if it did."

Russia integral to Iran's progress

Andrew Brooks, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, also believes the US is working toward engaging Russia as an ally in its Iran policy.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, right, welcomes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to a regional security summit in Yekaterinburg, Russia.
Iran relies heavily on Russian missile and nuclear expertiseImage: AP

"It's well known that Iran is ten to 20 years away from a long-range missile which could reach an American city, even if it wanted to attack the US, which many believe is highly unlikely anyway," he told Deutsche Welle. "But they could only reach this capability and build a nuclear program with Russian assistance. Only with Russia on board can the US stop Iran building the missiles and reaching its nuclear goals. Obama is right to engage with Russia to solve the problem with Iran rather than antagonizing Moscow with the missile shield and driving it into Iran's open arms."

Another risk, Kamp believes, is the deterioration of trust and cooperation with the Eastern European countries which signed up to the Bush administration's plans in return for financial incentives, military equipment and geo-political support. As part of the missile shield project, the Czech Republic agreed to host a radar base and Poland was to allow ten Interceptor missile batteries to be deployed on its territory.

Compliant Europeans undermined by US

Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, left, and Polish President Lech Kaczynski shake hands after a meeting in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008.
The Poles and the Czechs did deals with a very different USImage: AP

"First of all, this is not such a huge deal for the whole of Europe," he said. "We are not seeing the security and defense of Europe sacrificed on the altar of US-Russian relations. This is not a withdrawal from the idea of missile defense either as the US even has a law that obliges each president to pursue missile defense as long as the technical capabilities exist and the US can absorb the bearable costs.

"But for the Czech Republic and Poland - this is a big deal. They will not only lose what the US promised in terms of rewards but they have exposed themselves to criticism from Russia and their allies. The US has undermined these countries in their relations with Russia and others for the sake of its own relationship with Moscow."

Jan Gaspers, an expert on European Security and Defense Policy at the University of Cambridge's Center of International Studies, believes that while the Czech Republic and Poland will suffer, the US itself may have burnt some bridges in Europe through its decision on missile defense.

US faces a loss of trust and a tarnished image

U.S. President Barack Obama addresses an audience at the Cairo University in Cairo, Egypt Thursday, June 4, 2009.
Is Obama prepared to pay a high price for Russian support?Image: AP

"The apparent decision of the Obama Administration to shelve the plans for a missile defense shield in Central Europe doubtlessly constitutes a considerable blow to Czech and Polish political elites," he told Deutsche Welle. "Even 20 years after the end of the Cold War, the Central European EU/NATO members continue to perceive Russia as a potential threat to their security. For Prague and Warsaw, the planned missile defense shield is therefore also a crucial means to demonstrate to Moscow that they have become an integral part of the Euro-Atlantic security architecture.

"The decision of the Obama Administration is likely to prompt the Czechs and the Polish to reevaluate the role of the US in their foreign and security policy planning," he added. "A crucial result of this re-evaluation might be that Prague and Warsaw will increasingly tend to seek security through the EU’s security and defense policy (ESDP) rather than through cooperation with the US and NATO. Doubtlessly the US has lost quite a lot of trust."

Karl-Heinz Kamp believes that the image of the US is also at risk, not just in Europe but in the wider world.

"The United States is at risk of undermining itself with this decision," he said. "After ten years - because this is not just George W. Bush's idea but one planned by the Clinton administration - they are now turning round and saying that there is not such a big threat and we no longer need this shield. And this is not the first time that this has been done, overturning a seemingly immovable piece of policy. If every few years a new president makes such a u-turn, what image does this put out?"

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge