The US / Russia controversy over missile defense in Europe has become even more complex now that the UN Security Council on July 20 unanimously approved a resolution on Iran’s nuclear program. Actually, the time is propitious to raise the issue of missile defense in Europe.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has reacted with surprise to statements from the White House that the U.S. does not intend to curtail plans to establish missile defense systems in Europe following the historic deal agreed with Iran over Tehran’s nuclear program, despite earlier comments made by the US President.
In 2009 President Barack Obama visited Prague to make a statement containing a promise to scrap plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe to shield against Iranian missiles, «As long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward with a missile defense system that is cost-effective and proven. If the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security, and the driving force for missile defense construction in Europe will be removed».
«President Obama in 2009 publicly said that if the Iranian nuclear issue was resolved, there would be no need for missile defense in Europe, but it seems that he was not telling the truth», Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in an interview with Channel NewsAsia on August 5, 2015.
The U.S. State Department quickly responded to the allegation, claiming that Lavrov had twisted Obama’s words. As US State Department deputy spokesperson Mark Toner put it, «He (Lavrov) made a comment about the President, frankly, not telling the truth about missile defense, and that’s at best a selective reading of the President’s statements, and at worse a willful ignoring of the facts. The President has consistently said since 2009 that the European Phased Adaptive Approach missile defense system is necessary to protect the U.S. and our allies from the threat posed by ballistic missiles from the Middle East. And the agreement with Iran, if it is fully implemented, will only address the issue of nuclear weapons but does not resolve the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles. So I just wanted to clarify that point».
Speaking to Russian state television station Rossiya 24 on August 10, Russian Foreign Ministry’s official spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, denied that Sergey Lavrov had taken Obama’s words out of context. According to her, «The Russian Foreign Minister quoted the American President. No one forced [Obama] to raise the issue, he said it himself several years ago — that solving the issue of Iran’s nuclear program would allow the plans to deploy missile defense systems in Europe to be reviewed», she said.
The US has always responded to Russia’s criticism of plans to field missile elements in Europe by pointing to the threat coming from the Iran’s nuclear program. The BMD (ballistic missile defense) has been viewed by Russia as a threat to its strategic nuclear forces. Now the United States insists that the Iran deal in its final form most certainly doesn’t end the Iranian missile threat, since it has no provisions forbidding or even curtailing Iranian work on a ballistic missile, which can be armed with a conventional warhead. It all boils down to the fact that the deal with Iran is too circumscribed to do away with the missile threat. The US says that although ballistic missiles have limited use armed with conventional weapons, Iran could modernize and turn them into nuclear-tipped delivery systems in short order after the agreement expires.
For instance, U.S. ambassador to Poland Stephen Mull repeated these arguments, saying that the agreement with Iran would not affect U.S. plans to build a missile defense base in Poland. According to him, «The agreements [with Iran] have nothing to do with the program for developing Iranian ballistic missiles».
That’s how it suddenly happens to be – all of a sudden they have «nothing to do» with the Iranian program after so many years the US has said quite the opposite at all levels! A real good example of political flip-flop!
Azriel Bermant, Research Fellow, Institute for National Security Studies, expresses the gist of US approach to the problem, «The deal with Iran should not alter the BMD plans because the Iranian missile threat will remain. Also, one cannot rule out the possibility that Iran will renege on the agreement. I believe that it would be a mistake to make any changes to the NATO missile defence deployments, and I think it is unlikely to happen any time soon. I think it would send a bad message to US allies in Central and Eastern Europe at a time of a rising Russian threat (even if the BMD system is not designed to deal with a Russian threat but with one from Iran). Second, there is no certainty that Iran will adhere to the agreement. Third, NATO has made it clear on a number of occasions that the missile defence system is not intended to address just one threat (Iran) but to deal with multiple threats. Moreover, John Kerry himself has said that there are concerns also regarding other WMD threats and conventional weapons».
If so, Russia will most certainly use the BMD plans underway to justify its nuclear missile modernization drive. Moscow has stated on many occasions that if the U.S. continues to push the issue, Russia will find asymmetrical means of responding to the missile defense system.
Is the Iranian threat really that imminent?
The Shahab-3 is the cornerstone of Iran's ballistic missile arsenal, and is capable of reaching all of Iraq, Afghanistan, and western Saudi Arabia. The maximum range of the Shahab-3 is 1000 km, the approximate distance from the westernmost point of Iran to Israel. Due to operational security concerns Iran is unable to deploy the Shahab-3 close to its western border.
These are the words (conveniently forgotten by US officials now) spoken in February 2014, by Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman who stated, «If we are successful in assuring ourselves and the world community that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon, then that makes delivery systems … almost irrelevant».
If one takes at face value what US officials say, then the President Obama’s numerous critics appear to be right – he has achieved a bad deal and he actually admits it. The threat remains and nothing is achieved in concrete terms, so the United States and NATO allies have to spend a lot of money on European BMD sites and face the retaliatory measures willy-nilly taken by Russia to counter the threat, including Iskander missiles deployed to counter the challenge to its strategic retaliatory strike capability. According to the US stance, the threat of facing Iranian nuclear-tipped missiles is not eliminated but only postponed. This admission makes the US extremely vulnerable to the opposition fighting the deal. It is really strong in Congress. This is the right issue for opponents to pick up as it has become easy enough to lambaste the US Democratic administration over the Iran agreement.
One thing is clear – it looks very much like the United States has reneged on its word to remove the missile defense elements from Europe if the threat from Iran is not acute anymore. It automatically vindicates the Russia’s concern over its potential security and the subsequent steps it takes to enhance it. The administration admits it got a bad deal. It should say so to American people. If not, then why spend money on the weapons that serve no purpose instead of doing away with the backbone of contention between the US and Russia and thus greatly reduce tensions on the old continent?