Iran demonstrated its growing missile capabilities on Tuesday when it launched a satellite into orbit. But this should not force Europe and the United States to rush decisions on deploying a missile defense system in Europe.
Instead, a prudent assessment of Iran's missiles, and the important difference between its long-range and medium-range missile capabilities, should determine the best missile defense response.
The Bush administration sought to place 10 missile interceptors in Poland in order to defend both Europe and the United States against potential Iranian missile attacks. During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama supported missile defenses in Europe if they were proven to work.
But beyond just working, interceptors should be deployed in a way that offers the best defense against Iran's long-range and medium-range missiles.
Tehran has not yet tested long-range missiles that can strike the United States. In theory, by 2012 to 2015, when the interceptors were scheduled to be deployed in Poland, Tehran could build a few intercontinental missiles--perhaps derived from North Korea's Taepodong-2 missile--that can reach the United States. The 10 interceptors in Poland would be sufficient, but not entirely necessary, to tackle this threat, because interceptors in Alaska can also counter these missiles.
By contrast, Tehran has built dozens of short-range and medium-range single-stage missiles that can reach neighboring states and Israel. Tehran's satellite launching rocket is probably derived from these medium-range missiles, and demonstrates that Iran can now build two-stage missiles. Such multiple stage missiles would be capable of striking Europe, and Tehran could build many of these missiles in the next decade. This large number of medium-range missiles would overwhelm the 10 interceptors in Poland.
To counter this, Washington would have to place a larger number of interceptors in Poland, but this would begin to undermine Russia's nuclear deterrent, straining ties with Moscow.
Thus a different missile defense architecture for Europe, with interceptors in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania or Albania (which would not undermine Moscow's deterrent), combined with interceptors based on Aegis-equipped warships in the Mediterranean Sea, would likely provide a better way to counter any future Iranian missile threat to Europe.
The United States, Russia and other European states should also pursue diplomatic options.
An arms control dialogue that secures an Iranian pledge to renounce building and testing new missiles would considerably reduce this threat. Flight test bans, for example, can be easily monitored. Monitoring capabilities such as the Azeri radar station would help.
In June 2007, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates welcomed then-Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to use this station. Any Iranian satellite launches could also be monitored to affirm that they are only derived from medium-range missiles rather than from any new long-range missile.
The new U.S. administration has an opportunity to take a new approach with Russia on missiles and missile defense. Though Russia was said to have backed down last week from threatening Poland with short-range missiles, the Russian Foreign Ministry quickly declared that deployment is still linked to whether the U.S. deploys interceptors in Poland.
Washington should not let Moscow's threats dictate U.S. missile-defense plans. Rather, the Obama administration should thoroughly assess ballistic missile proliferation as it plans missile defense responses, and should consider missile defense cooperation with Moscow based on mutual interests to counter real missile threats.
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