By Michael Abramowitz and Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007
President Bush said yesterday that a missile defense system is urgently needed in Europe to guard against a possible attack on U.S. allies by Iran, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates suggested that the United States could delay activating such a system until there is "definitive proof" of such a threat.
The seemingly contrasting messages came as the Bush administration grappled with continuing Russian protests over Washington's plan to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe. The Kremlin considers the program a potential threat to its own nuclear deterrent and has sought to play down any threat from Iran.
Both Bush and Gates affirmed that they want to proceed with deployment of the system, including 10 antimissile interceptors in Poland and a radar-tracking facility in the Czech Republic projected for completion in 2012. Bush cited Iran's development of ballistic missiles that could strike Israel and Turkey, and said Tehran is also developing missiles that could strike NATO countries.
"The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it's urgent," Bush said in his remarks at the National Defense University. "Today," he added, "we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat, so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can."
At a separate appearance in Prague, Gates suggested that Russian concerns could be allayed by delaying operation of the Eastern European system until the Iranian missile threat to Europe materialized. "We have not fully developed this proposal," Gates said, "but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps would delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran."
White House officials said that there was no daylight between Bush and Gates, saying that Gates is committed to the system but is looking for ways to address the Russian objections. White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there is no doubt that "the program will go forward."
In his speech yesterday, Bush discussed his efforts to combat international terrorism and rogue states and emphasized missile defense, an initiative he sees as a major legacy. Since taking office, Bush has declared operational a system meant to destroy incoming nuclear warheads that has not been completely tested -- provoking criticism from defense and arms control experts who question its cost-effectiveness.
Bush initially depicted the system as meant to counter a missile threat from North Korea but lately has emphasized the threat from Iran, which the administration says is trying to develop a nuclear weapon. The White House has disputed suggestions that it is trying to lay the groundwork for military strikes, saying that Bush is focused on diplomatic efforts to halt Iran's activities -- which Tehran says involve nuclear energy, not weaponry.
U.S. officials say the 2012 deployment date is meant to precede Iran's projected development of nuclear weapon and its development of a long-range ballistic missile capability by 2015.
Yesterday, Bush said the intelligence community assessed that Iran could do it "before 2015," but he said Tehran would need foreign assistance.
A July report by the Congressional Research Service said that, as of mid-2007, "Iran has only flight-tested one medium-range missile, the single-stage Shahab-3, having a range of 1,300-2,000 kilometers," or about 1,200 miles. CRS also noted that many experts disagree with the U.S. assessment of Iran's capabilities.
"The international security policy and ballistic missile proliferation community argue that evidence of an Iranian ICBM program is scant and unconvincing," the CRS reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also expressed skepticism, and the Iranians said they dropped development of an ICBM, the CRS reported.
U.S. lawmakers this year voted indirectly to delay the missile interceptor site deployment in Poland. As Bush acknowledged yesterday, about $139 million has been cut from the fiscal 2008 Pentagon budget request, money that was to pay for preliminary preparation of the Polish site.
"Missile defense is a vital tool for our security, it's a vital tool for deterrence and it's a vital tool for counterproliferation," Bush said. "Despite all these benefits, the United States Congress is cutting funding."
Further obstacles loom in Poland, where the liberal Civic Platform party won recent elections. It had pledged to withdraw Polish troops from Iraq and to renegotiate the deal permitting installation of the U.S. missile interceptor field. Polls of Polish people have regularly found that a majority disapprove of the U.S. interceptor base.
The U.S. system plans to use a ground-based interceptor that will not be tested before 2011. The European interceptor will be a two-stage version of a larger missile that has been problematic for the Pentagon's Defense Missile Agency.