The Bomb and the Shield

This June 1, 2009 Air Force photo found on the Missile Defense Agency’s website shows a ground-based interceptor at Ft. Greely, Alaska. US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Colonel Bond are looking down. The ten interceptors previously planned for Poland would have resembled this platform. Click to enlarge.

The scrapping of the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) system, or missile shield, in Eastern Europe must be put in the proper perspective to see what that decision does and does not affect. On a positive note, US-Russia relations will improve slightly and Russia will be encouraged to conclude the nuclear arms treaty with the US this December (see “US-Russia Summit: Nukes and Interceptors”) now that it thinks its strategic deterrent is safe. On the down side, Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons continues and Russia’s political support in this regard is not guaranteed.

The actual reasons for why President Obama cancelled the ABM system will be debated for years to come. The likely reasons were Russia’s adamant objection to the missile shield’s location and its threats to destroy it, and that the US was trapped in a losing position from the start (see: “Obama Scraps the ABM System”). Other reasons probably included Obama’s goal to finalize the nuclear weapons treaty with Russia and to improve US-Russia relations in general because the latter can encourage Russian cooperation on other foreign policy issues that are critical to the US.

It is also possible that Obama used the ABM dispute to strike a secret deal with Russia.  Did Russia lay Iran on the proverbial chopping block in exchange for the scrapping of the shield?* The timing of the missile shield’s policy review release is curious and may hint at a secret deal. The review for US policy in Afghanistan, which is a far more complex issue than missile defense, took only two months to complete. The Afghanistan policy review took almost four times as long. President Obama may have been stalling on the shield review’s release in order to finish negotiations with Russia. Only time will tell whether a secret deal was reached and what the details of such a deal might have been.

Future Russian actions on certain issues might be an indicator of a secret US-Russia deal. For instance, if Russia were to support substantive (rather than symbolic) future UN action against Iran in the short-term than this would be evidence that a deal was made. However, it may be that getting Russia to go along with any strong action against Iran took more than the missile shield’s cancellation. A future announcement of a Turkmenistan oil and gas pipeline that passes through Russia instead of through Afghanistan and Pakistan might be another indicator of a secret deal. Also, recently there were US-Russia negotiations to permit the NATO supply convoys for Afghanistan to pass through Russia rather than Pakistan, where the Taliban would frequently attack the convoys. Perhaps these transportation negotiations were part of a larger deal linked to the scrapping of the missile shield. Whatever was agreed, it is hard to imagine Russia not giving something up in exchange for the missile shield’s cancellation.

Hopefully, Russian support against Iran’s nuclear ambition was secured through the missile shield. To be sure, there are no good policy options to stopping Iran from getting the bomb, and it is possible that Russia refused to oppose Iran’s nuclear ambitions.** One thing is clear: President Obama must not quit in his effort to stop Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, even without Russia’s assistance. Yielding to Iran on the bomb would be a watershed international security event that would likely initiate a chain reaction that could result in nuclear weapons being used in this generation. This is because letting Iran get the bomb is to implicitly set off a nuclear arms race in the Gulf. The two issues are linked. For instance, first the US got the bomb, then the Soviets got it; when India got the bomb Pakistan soon followed. Therefore, if Iran gets the bomb, Saudi Arabia, the Sunni-dominated Iranian rival will also likely pursue the bomb and possibly other Gulf States as well. Iran’s international pariah status and links to groups like Hamas and Hezbullah raises alarming nuclear proliferation concerns.

Today, experts focus almost exclusively on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium, which is a necessary step to making a nuclear bomb, and Iran’s missile delivery systems, which could be fitted with nuclear warheads. Currently, Iran is making progress on its short and medium-range missiles, and this fact was one of the Obama administration’s official reasons for scrapping the missile shield because only a long-range missile (an ICBM) can reach Europe from Iran. These two issues –Iran’s uranium enrichment program and missile capability- are then connected to say that if Iran gets the bomb, it will not have a long-range missile with which to strike Europe.

While Iran’s ability to enrich uranium is important, an aerial delivery system (a missile) is less so. Smuggling would work just as well. Iran would not need a nuclear-tipped missile to strike Israel, instead it could just give the bomb to Hamas or Hezballah, and they could smuggle it across Israel’s border. Also, Iran could just as easily give the bomb to al Qaeda, which could smuggle it to Europe or the US. The Iranian government knows that if it launches a nuclear missile attack on Israel then Israel will retaliate. However, if a bomb is smuggled into Israel and then detonated, the Iranian government can deny its involvement and make up a story about the bomb’s theft from its stockpile.

Short, medium, or long-range rockets reduce in their relative significance in comparison to the general nuclear proliferation in the Muslim world that will likely occur if Iran succeeds in making a nuclear weapon. The odds of a Hollywood “24” scenario, where terrorists acquire a nuke, becomes a realistic possibility. Iran is likely to succeed if left alone. The US and the international community need to decide if they are going to do something about it.

* Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei seems worried by Obama’s scrapping of the ABM shield as his comments last Friday suggest. Khamenei likely fears Russian duplicity. See the AP story at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2009/sep/21/khamenei-us-wrong-about-iran-and-nukes/

** All policy options on Iran from diplomacy to military force are loaded with cons. The June 2009 Brookings Institution analysis paper: “Which Path to Persia?” by Kenneth M. Pollack et al. explores nine different policy options and they all look bad. A hard copy may be ordered at: https://www.press.jhu.edu/cgi-bin/brookingsorder_process?Approve:Add:9780815703419 Or, download the PDF file for free at: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/rc/papers/2009/06_iran_strategy/06_iran_strategy.pdf