By Joby Warrick and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, May 19, 2009
A planned U.S. missile shield to protect Europe from a possible Iranian attack would be ineffective against the kinds of missiles Iran is likely to deploy, according to a joint analysis by top U.S. and Russian scientists.
The U.S.-Russian team also judged that it would be more than five years before Iran is capable of building both a nuclear warhead and a missile capable of carrying it over long distances. And if Iran attempted such an attack, the experts say, it would ensure its own destruction.
"The missile threat from Iran to Europe is thus not imminent," the 12-member technical panel concludes in a report produced by the EastWest Institute, an independent think tank based in Moscow, New York and Belgium.
The report, scheduled for release today, could further dampen the Obama administration's enthusiasm for a Bush administration plan to deploy radars and interceptor missiles in Poland and the Czech Republic. The missile shield has been promoted as a safeguard against future attacks from rogue states, particularly Iran. But the plan has severely strained relations with Moscow, which says it would undermine strategic stability and lead to a new arms race.
The year-long study brought together six senior technical experts from both the United States and Russia to assess the military threat to Europe from Iran's nuclear and missile programs. The report's conclusions were reviewed by former defense secretary William J. Perry, among others, before being presented to national security adviser James L. Jones and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
The report acknowledges dramatic technological gains by Iran, and it predicts that the country could probably build a simple nuclear device in one to three years, if it kicked out U.N. inspectors and retooled its uranium-processing plants to make weapons-grade enriched uranium. Another five years would be needed to build a warhead that would fit on one of Iran's missiles, the panel says. U.S. intelligence agencies have made similar predictions; Israel maintains that Iran could build a bomb in as little as eight months.
The U.S.-Russian experts say Iran faces limits in developing ballistic missiles that could someday carry nuclear warheads. Its current arsenal is derived from relatively unsophisticated North Korean missiles, which in turn are modified versions of a Russian submarine-launched missile that dates from the 1950s. "We believe that these components were likely transferred to North Korea illegally in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Russia was experiencing major political and economic chaos," one of the U.S. team members said in a separate commentary.
As a result, the missiles have inherent weaknesses stemming from such aged technology, despite some improvements in their range, the report states. Moreover, the country lacks "the infrastructure of research institutions, industrial plants, or the scientists and engineers that are needed to make substantial improvements."
They conclude that it would take Iran at least another six to eight years to produce a missile with enough range to reach Southern Europe and that only illicit foreign assistance or a concerted and highly visible, decade-long effort might produce the breakthroughs needed for a nuclear-tipped missile to threaten the United States.
Moreover, if Iran were to build a nuclear-capable missile that could strike Europe, the defense shield proposed by the United States "could not engage that missile," the report says. The missile interceptors could also be easily fooled by decoys and other simple countermeasures, the report concludes.
"The much more urgent problem is to seek a resolution" of the Iranian nuclear crisis, the report says. "That is a project on which the United States and Russia need to cooperate more closely."