WASHINGTON: In a major shift based on a reassessment of the threat from Iran, US President Barack Obama on Thursday shelved plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe, the cause of a Cold War-style row with Russia.
Mr Obama decided to replace the shield, the brainchild of former US president George W. Bush, with a more mobile system targeting Iranian short-range and medium-range missiles, initially using sea-based interceptors.
‘Our new missile defence architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defences of American forces and America’s allies,’ Mr Obama said at the White House.
The decision, however, risked alienating US allies in the former Soviet bloc and infuriated Mr Obama’s Republican foes, who accused him of appeasing Moscow and of showing dangerous weakness.
Sensitive to claims he is weak on national security and was sending the wrong kind of signal towards Iran, the president insisted the new plan made American allies more secure.
‘This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defences against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defence programme,’ he said.
The dramatic move followed a shift in intelligence assessments of Iran’s ballistic programme, which concluded the most immediate threat was Tehran’s short- and medium-range arsenal, not yet-to-be-developed long-range missiles.
‘Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile programme and that continues to be our focus and basis of the programme that we’re announcing today,’ Mr Obama said.
The Bush-era system would have involved building a radar system in the Czech Republic and basing missiles in Poland – a scenario which infuriated Russia and became an impediment to better US-Russia relations.
Critics argued the system could not be proven to work, was focused on a non-existent threat from Iranian long-range hardware and needlessly angered Russia.
Defence Secretary Robert Gates said under the reconfigured system, more mobile SM-3 interceptor missiles would initially be deployed on ships, while the military developed a land-based system.
‘The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded land-based SM-3s,’ he said.
Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting the land-based version, he said.
The White House denied the decision was part of a quid pro quo to entice greater Russian cooperation on issues like Iran’s nuclear programme and Afghanistan.
‘Absolutely not,’ said Mr Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, insisting the president had been motivated by military and strategic imperatives and not by Russia’s charges that the proposed Eastern European shield threatened its security. — AFP