Obama Shifts Focus Of Missile Shield

President Barack Obama issues a statement Thursday updating the United States' missile defense strategies. Video by The Washington Post
By Michael D. Shear and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, September 18, 2009

President Obama's decision to abandon a Bush-era plan for a missile defense system in Europe and establish a partly ship-based shield against Iranian rockets could tighten U.S. pressure on the Islamic republic and ease a simmering rift with Russia.

White House officials said the new missile defense system is designed principally to confront Iran's emerging military might more directly, even as diplomats prepare for talks with Iran and other countries next month that the United States hopes will lead to discussions on Tehran's nuclear ambitions. Obama, in announcing his decision Thursday, said a shield based on the Navy's Aegis system will be geographically closer to Iran, will be deployed sooner and will be more cost-effective than the land-based system put forward by the Bush administration.

The abrupt reversal of U.S. defense policy immediately brought plaudits from Russian officials, who had viewed the prospect of an American missile shield system on their country's western border as an affront. The shift raised the possibility of greater cooperation between the two powers on containing the Iranian threat and in negotiating an extension of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires in early December.

"There's no substitute for Iran complying with its international obligations regarding its nuclear program, and we, along with our allies and partners, will continue to pursue strong diplomacy to ensure that Iran lives up to these international obligations," the president said in brief remarks from the Diplomatic Room of the White House. "But this new ballistic missile defense program will best address the threat posed by Iran's" missile program.

Rather than defend Europe and the United States against a handful of intercontinental ballistic missiles, military officials said, they must now counter Tehran's successful efforts to manufacture hundreds of smaller, shorter-range missiles.

Plans for 10 interceptor missiles and a radar facility in Poland and the Czech Republic -- a key part of the military policy advanced by George W. Bush in 2006 -- will be replaced by a network of smaller, more modern missiles based on ships, and later on land. Obama and his top military officials said the decision was driven by an evolving assessment of Iran's capability and intentions.

"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," Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said. "This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies."

U.S. officials rejected the idea of a quid pro quo with Russia, insisting that broader geopolitical considerations about kick-starting arms reduction talks or gaining cooperation on Iranian aggression had played no part in their deliberations about which missile system was better equipped to protect the region and the United States.

One senior administration official dismissed the Russians' concerns about the former missile defense plans, saying that 10 interceptors were never a "strategic threat" to their country. Nonetheless, he said the new system advocated by Obama "should be less threatening to them."

In Russia, Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Nesterenko insisted that no backroom deal had been struck between Moscow and Washington. But he made clear that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev is pleased with the development.

"So far, I can say that a possible review of the U.S. position on missile defense would be a positive signal," Nesterenko said.

White House officials said Obama's decision followed careful deliberations that included more than 50 meetings since March and almost 100 discussions with allies, some of which involved the U.S. president and his counterparts.

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