The new National Intelligence Estimate has led many to call for a new policy towards Iran. Sen. Hillary Clinton "vehemently disagree[s]" that "nothing in American policy has to change." Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the report confirmed the Russian view that "there is no military element in [Iran's] nuclear program."
Doesn't all this mean we should drop support for missile defense?
No. The threat has not changed significantly and missile defense remains one of the few options still available to lessen the power of potential Iranian nukes. The program can also turn positive relationships with Central European states into long-term, mutually-dependent alliances.
The United States needs a response that will directly address the physical threat of Iranian nukes.
Iran tested a new missile, called the 'Ashura,' as recently as late last month. This 2000-kilometer-range weapon could potentially reach U.S bases in the Middle East and parts of Eastern Europe, including such U.S. allies as Romania, Georgia, or Ukraine. The announcement may just be bluster, but the unveiling alone shows that Iran has no intention of backing down militarily.
A careful reading of the NIE makes an even stronger case for a continued menace. The report admits that Iran continues to enrich uranium, that Iran "probably would be technically capable of producing enough highly-enriched uranium (HEU) for a weapon sometime during the 2010-2015 time frame," and that it "will be difficult" to convince the Iranian leadership to abandon eventual development of a nuclear capability.
The basic facts remain the same; perhaps the only revelation is that Iran, if anything, has made a tactical decision to delay warhead production so it can buy enough time for the more difficult task of enriching uranium. After the marathon of amassing sufficient fuel, Tehran just has to sprint through the relatively simple process of developing warheads.
Our missile defense partners recognize the enduring danger. The Czech foreign ministry stated that, "'According to the report, Iran will probably be capable of producing a sufficient quantity of nuclear material for the production of a nuclear bomb between 2010 and 2015. This corresponds with the previous estimates. By this date the European pillar of anti-missile defense should be in place.'"
The threat still exists. How can we continue to pressure Iran?
The report dashed hopes for any broad UN sanctions against Iran, as Russia and China, reluctant beforehand to impose serious punitive measures on Iran, now have a ready excuse. Military strikes now also seem highly unlikely, given the lack of urgency precipitated by the NIE.
Those opposed to an Iranian nuclear program might still enact smart sanctions--targeting, for example, the participation of Iranian regime elements in the international financial system--in coordination with a few hardy European allies. One such ally, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, said through a spokesman that "the report confirms we were right to be worried about Iran seeking to develop nuclear weapons."
But such action will not be enough. The United States needs a response that will directly address the physical threat of Iranian nukes. Missile defense development avoids the problem of UN-based obstruction by Russia or China, and it remains one of the few remaining pressure points we can use against Iran.
The string of recent missile defense successes may give Iranian officials some pause in their pursuit of military weapons--why risk spending great amounts of money and time on a weapon that might be ineffective upon deployment? At the very least, missile defense would force Tehran to spend more time developing complicated countermeasures, thereby reducing the immediacy of the threat.
The Missile Defense Agency conducted its 4th successful intercept in 39 days off the coast of Hawaii on November 7. Testing conditions increasingly resemble realistic missile launches: for example, sailors operating interceptors no longer have advance warning of the exact timing of a missile launch. On December 3, Raytheon ran the first successful air-to-air missile interception. Beyond the mobility advantage of the launch platform--an F-16--this test showed that interceptors could bring down missiles still in the previously problematic boost-phase segment of flight.
The Czech Republic, in addition to the rhetoric mentioned above, continues to lay the ground for its portion of the missile defense program. On December 4, the central government approved a $69 million development fund for the Brdy region, the eventual location of the radar portion of the defense program; Poland would host the actual interceptors.
Our allies continue to recognize the threat. Why don't we take this opportunity to pressure Iran and build a strong military alliance with Central European states?
Israel developed the Arrow missile defense system in the early nineties in response to the casualties and economic disruption wrought by Iraqi scud missiles during the Gulf War. Scoring its first hit-to-kill intercept success in 1994, the system became successful in part due to close cooperation with the United States. Joint missile defense exercises, like March's Juniper Cobra, and intelligence-sharing have strengthened the U.S.-Israeli alliance while protecting American interests.
On Monday, a Japanese Kongo-class destroyer launched an interceptor that demolished a missile 100 miles above the Pacific Ocean. The test, the first successful operation by a U.S. ally of the U.S.-produced AEGIS missile defense system, succeeded thanks to close cooperation with Washington. Japan now possesses the beginnings of a viable counter to North Korean missiles.
Joint cooperation on missile defense produces greater trust and closer relationships between officers of partner countries, spurring in turn stronger military alliances. Close contact in East Asia and the Middle East has significantly assisted U.S. interests in those regions. Why not expand such a program to Eastern Europe?
Former Warsaw Pact members have not yet had the opportunity to cooperate as closely with the United States as Japan and Israel due to their many years of Soviet domination. Yet they have devoted themselves in the little time they have had since independence to common security. Seventeen of the 39 nations who have participated in the Multinational Force in Iraq hailed from Eastern Europe. Nine of those 17 have joined NATO.
Missile defense would turn this short-term cooperation into long-term partnership. Allies who do missile defense together, stay together.
We cannot let momentum from the NIE wash away the few sticks we have left. Missile defense supports U.S. interests in Iran and elsewhere. It deserves a central place in any policy aimed at keeping up the heat on Tehran.
Charlie Szrom is a research assistant at AEI.