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When President Obama decided to revise plans for a missile defense shield based in Eastern Europe, he did so because of new intelligence on Iran. The original plan began because the Bush administration was worried about Irans ability to use long-range missiles to strike Europe and possibly the U.S. The shield wouldve set up radar and missile interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic.
Now, a new study concludes the Iranians are making much more progress in developing short and medium-range missiles. NPRs Mike Shuster has more.
MIKE SHUSTER: President Obama came into office quite cautious about missile defense and quickly ordered an extensive review of U.S. missile defense systems, their costs and capabilities. Key to the revised plan, the president said, is a new picture of Irans progress on missile development.
President BARACK OBAMA: We have updated our intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs, which emphasizes the threat posed by Iran's short- and medium-range missiles, which are capable of reaching Europe.
SHUSTER: Iran has done a lot of rocketry testing in recent months, including on missiles with a potential range of up to 1,200 miles. It has not yet deployed such missiles, but those it has deployed have a much shorter range, estimated at from 200 to 600 miles. But Iran's research suggests its missiles could threaten southern Europe in six to eight years, according to one recent study.
President Obama underscored that his plan would not abandon Europe it would change how Europe might be defended from this missile threat. It would involve land- and sea-based shorter-range interceptors, with now-tested capabilities, the president said.
President OBAMA: Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies.
SHUSTER: It will also be cheaper, according to the president.
At the Pentagon yesterday, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates explained how his perceptions of the Iranian missile threat have changed since he recommended the earlier plan to President Bush three years ago.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): The intelligence community now assesses that the threat from Iran's short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3, is developing more rapidly than previously projected. On the other hand, our intelligence assessment also now assesses that the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006.
SHUSTER: What this means is that Iran is rapidly gaining the capacity to change what in the parlance of the Pentagon is called the missile raid size, explained General James Cartwright, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
General JAMES CARTWRIGHT (Vice chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): We built the original system on the idea of a rogue nation threat three to five missiles that could come from either North Korea or Iran. The reality is we're dealing with hundreds of missiles in the IRBM and medium-range capability. And the likelihood of more than just four or five has to be considered now as we start to build this system out.
SHUSTER: Iran has not yet deployed missiles that can reach Europe, but in the Pentagon's view, it is headed toward that capacity. Earlier this year, it did carry out a successful test of a two-stage missile using solid fuel called the Sejil-2. That has a range of about 1,200 miles, which could reach parts of Europe from Iran.
Dean Wilkening, a specialist in missile defense at Stanford University, says moving missile defenses closer to the Middle East would have a better chance of defending Europe from missile attack.
Dr. DEAN WILKENING (Stanford University): I believe the Polish-Czech system was designed first and foremost to defend the continental United States and secondarily to defend Europe. If you reverse the priority order and want to defend Europe first because the missile threats to Europe are going to appear sooner, the Polish-Czech architecture is not the best architecture. In fact, there are others that would provide a better defense of Europe.
SHUSTER: Iran's currently deployed short-range missiles can reach Israel and neighbors like Saudi Arabia. The missile defense system the administration is proposing now would station ship-based interceptors in the eastern Mediterranean and possibly the Persian Gulf, much closer to Iran than the planned deployments of the Bush administration in Eastern Europe.
The decision to revamp the U.S. missile defense system for Europe is driven, too, by Iran's progress in the enrichment of uranium and other nuclear technologies. Iran does not now possess nuclear warheads. But if it were able at some point in the future to marry a nuclear warhead to medium-range missiles that could reach Israel and Europe, the Obama administration appears intent on having a tested missile defense system in place that stands a real chance of intercepting those weapons.
Mike Shuster, NPR News.
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