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U.S. Walks Away from the Missile Defense Third Site (and European Allies) September 17, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, North Korea, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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In an excellent WSJ article, Peter Spiegel details the reasons behind the Obama administration’s shelving of the missile defense third site in Central Europe.  Though they are claiming that it was based on a technical assessment and that Iran’s long-range ballistic missile program is proceeding slowly, it should be apparent to the casual observer that this has been Obama’s plan since January 20th.  In a move to appease Russian objections to installing U.S. military assets in their “sphere of influence,” the U.S. has walked away from defense commitments made to Poland, the Czech Republic, and other nations within range of Iranian missiles.  This decision is misguided and dangerous for several reasons.

First, the procurement issue.  Even if you accept the delay in Iranian ICBM capabilities until mid-2010s, due to the slow acquisition process (and slower deployment timetable), that is about the time the Third Site would become operational.  By shelving the plans, the U.S. will be putting itself in the position where it finds the Iranian missile program progressing faster than its missile defense deployment.  In the time period between Iranian long-range missile capability and U.S. BMD deployment, Iran may be able to coerce the U.S. or Europe by threatening unprotected European cities.  Their stopgap measure of rotating terminal-phase missile defenses (those that intercept the missile in its last minutes of descending flight) through Europe will leave plenty cities vulnerable and will take just as long to deploy (and probably cost more).

Second, the timeline issue.  The 2007 national intelligence estimate, which had a lot of political influences, delayed the timeline of Iran’s nuclear program.  However, it failed to account for technical surprise, and it is likely the missile estimate failed to do so as well.  In 1998 virtually every intelligence agency in the world was surprised when North Korea launched a three-stage ICBM.  In 2003 the unraveling of (some of) the A.Q. Khan network revealed how private individuals could essentially proliferate nuclear weapon technology to any country with cash.  The point is that a significant surprise – such as North Korean or private-network assistance, could propel Iran to an ICBM capability far sooner than the intelligence currently suggests.  The third site would have provided valuable insurance against this possible eventuality.

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

An Iranian Shahab-3 has a range of 1,600 km

Third, the allies’ defense.  True, the administration is pledging to deploy some missile defenses, like terminal-intercepts, but this is a far cry from the planned midcourse-intercept system that could have provided coverage of virtually all of Europe.  Terminal systems have a small “footprint” that can only cover smaller areas, like a city.  In a must read letter to the Obama administration, current and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe basically ask not to be forgotten or sacrificed.  They state “all is not well in our region or in the transatlantic relationship…storm clouds are starting to gather on the foreign policy horizon… [Russia] at a regional level and vis-a-vis our nations, increasingly acts as a revisionist [power].”  They worry that Russia’s intimidation and influence-peddling will lead to a neutralization of their region.

Regarding the missile defense site, they pointedly write that “regardless of teh military merits of this scheme and what Washington eventually decides to do, the issue has become a symbol of America’s credibility and commitment to the region… The small number of missiles involved cannot be a threat to Russia’s strategic capabilities, and the Kremlin knows this.  We should decide the future of the program as allies and based on the strategic pluses and minuses of the different technical and political configurations.”  They conclude on this subject that “abandoning the program entirely or involving Russia too deeply in it without consulting Poland or the Czech Republic can undermine the credibility of the U.S. across the whole region.”  Central and Eastern Europe would know about Russia’s operations.  They lived under their iron boot for generations.

Finally, the Russian problem.  The Russians have protested loudly to the planned third site since it was first announced, despite the fact it is only 10 defensive interceptors that would be incapable of countering one SS-18 or even catching up with its missiles if they headed out over the polar routes.  Once again, our allies understand the situation: “When it comes to Russia, our experience has been that a more determined and principled policy toward Moscow will not only strengthen the West’s security but will ultimately lead Moscow to follow a more cooperative policy as well.”  This would require firmness in negotiations with Putin and Medvedev.

The third site was likely the price the Obama administration figured it could pay to get Russian assistance on sanctions against Iran and in order to conclude the START follow-on.  If anyone is convinced the Russians can exert the leverage to make the Iranians comply with their obligations (forget the UN Security Council, China will still block that), they have not been paying attention.  Short of a crippling cut-off of all gasoline imports or nuclear reactor fuel from Russia, Iran is unlikely to even consider talks about its nuclear program.  As I stated in a previous post, linking the new START to removal of the missile defense site from Europe would be unacceptable.  Linking offensive and defensive weapons is walking right back into the Cold War paradigm the Clinton and Bush administrations did so much to end.

This is perhaps the administration’s worst foreign policy action to date.  It delays deployment of a real capability that could not only defend European allies but also the eastern United States from Iranian missiles.  It cannot be viewed as anything other than backing away from commitments made to Central and Eastern European allies and ignoring their legitimate concerns.  The Senate should reject ratification of the START follow-on treaty and mandate the deployment of the planned missile defenses as the price for their support.  Given this decision and the administration’s likely objection to warhead modernization, it will be hard to get 67 votes to ratify START.


The Limits of the Iranian Election June 12, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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Much has been made about the Iranian election between current President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and challenger Mir Hossein Moussavi (and two other candidates) taking place today, 12 June 2009 (see here and here for news coverage).  While there are significant differences between the candidates, the impact of a possible Moussavi victory would be limited.  There are indications that he would be more receptive to Obama’s overtures, that he would be less provocative in his statements (which may significantly alleviate, though not eliminate, Israel’s fears), and that he would place a higher priority on correcting the Iranian economy, which has been wracked by double-digit inflation and sanctions imposed for Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism.  In these areas, Moussavi may prove to be a welcome change from Ahmadinejad for the West and Iran’s large young and educated population.  The limits of his victory, however, would be noticed in two key areas.

Iranian Foreign Policy – here power has always rested with the Iranian clerics and the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.  Though the president of Iran is the highest envoy that represents the government to the international arena, the real power in foreign policy lies with the Iranian religious leadership.  Thus while Moussavi may be willing to improve relations with Washington, the decision to do anything substantive in that direction (versus simply warm talk) will come from the Ayatollah.

Iranian Nuclear Program – there is wide popular support in Iran for the nuclear program, with the BBC reporting in mid-2007 that a poll suggested 80% of Iranian’s believe their country needs nuclear energy.  Furthermore, though they may not come out and advocate having nuclear weapons, many Iranians would want their country to have the option of producing such weapons through uranium enrichment capability.  With many remembering the Iran-Iraq War and Saddam’s use of chemical weapons on Iranian cities, they recognize the utility of having a weapon powerful enough to deter such attacks from taking place again.  As Willis Stanley points out in Strategic Culture and WMD, the Ayatollah and the clerics have recognized the value in possessing nukes, believing they would help fulfill Iran’s ambition to be leader of the Islamic world.

Therefore there are significant limits to the impact of the Iranian election.  Obviously if Ahmadinejad is reelected, the situation will not change at all.  If Moussavi succeeds in replacing him, however, relations with the West and Israel may improve as he would likely scale back provocative statements and work to lift sanctions to help reinvigorate Iran’s economy.  This may assure Israel, the EU, and the U.S., but it is not likely to herald a transformative new relationship.  Israel will still be nervous about an Iranian nuclear program, unlikely accepting it at all.  The EU and the U.S. will continue insisting on IAEA inspections, which it is unclear whether the Ayatollah wishes to permit or not.  And terrorism financing will likely continue through the Iranian Revolutionary Guard regardless of who is president.  Far from being a silver bullet to mend international relations with Iran, the Iranian election, like most politics, is inherently local.

The Realist and the Idealist: the Netanyahu-Obama Meeting May 18, 2009

Posted by SV in Iran, Israel, Middle East, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
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On 18 May 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Barak Obama to discuss a wide range of issues, but in particular the progress of the Iranian nuclear program and the possibility of a separate Palestinian state (see story here).  The biggest agreement that came out of the meeting was the recognition that an Iranian nuclear weapon would be an existential threat to Israel and “profoundly destabilizing” to the world order.

There was, however, significant disagreement over the importance of working towards a Palestinian state.  President Obama indicated his belief that real progress towards such a goal, including the rollback of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, would garner broader Arab and world support in the effort to stop Iran’s nuclear program.  Prime Minister Netanyahu, however, recognized the reality that Israel faces.  Reflecting Israeli strategic culture, he knows that Israel’s survival is constantly at stake, it must maintain military superiority (including nuclear) in the region, and Israel will use any means necessary to ensure its defense and survival.  The issue of Palestinian statehood, therefore, can be left to the future when other preconditions of Israeli security are met.

The problem with President Obama’s approach – pushing for statehood as a prerequisite to attempting to court Arab support against Iran – is that it gives the Israelis little in return for a significant compromise to their security.  A combination of realism and strategic culture explain why Arab support will be forthcoming anyway.

First of all, Iran is a significant regional power in Southwest Asia.  It is a nation of 70+ million people, located astride of huge petroleum and natural gas reserves, and with a history of regional imperial domination (Persian and Parthian Empires).  If it does end up going nuclear, it will create anxieties among its influential neighbors, notably Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirate Statse, and Turkey (Iraq being virtually under the U.S. umbrella).  Unless these countries go nuclear, they fear Iran will use its new threat capability to exploit Saudi Arabia’s (Shia minority) and Turkey’s (Kurdish minority) internal problems.  It’s sheer size and proximity will also allow it to more easily intimidate the Gulf states, perhaps convincing them to evict U.S. troops.  Furthermore, if Saudi Arabia acquires a nuclear capability, Egypt will likely follow suit, seeing itself as the preeminent leader of the Arab world.

Second of all, Iran is the predominant (and a revolutionary) Shiite country in the region.  As such, this will also create additional tensions with Saudi Arabia, which is the “holy land” of Sunni Islam.  Also Turkey, an avowedly secular nation (though trending differently recently), will feel threatened by a revolutionary Iran armed with nukes.  Which brings us to Israel, which as the only Jewish state in a sea of Muslim states, sees a nuclear armed Iran as an existential threat.  Fearing that one bomb would irreversibly devastate Israel, its leaders will do whatever it takes to prevent another holocaust.

Therefore the Netanyahu-Obama summit illustrated the disconnect between the two leaders.  Obama clearly hopes to build an international consensus on Iran by “solving” the Palestinian question.  Netanyahu recognizes that Arab support is already there and that Israel must first confront the immediate threat of Iran before solving the long-term conflict with the Palestinians.  With time dwindling before Iran assembles a nuclear device, there are few opportunities left to address this dire security threat.  The international non-proliferation effort depends on a concerted and strong response.