Obama Shelves U.S. Missile Shield: The Winners and Losers

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Document IRAN / Sepah News

Long-range missiles are fired in southern Iran in July 2008.

President Obama's decision to shelve plans to station U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic is being portrayed as a pragmatic response to the threat of Iranian nuclear missiles. In confirming the move on Thursday, Sept. 16, Obama said the U.S. wants to focus instead on deploying "technologies that are proven and cost-effective and that counter the current threat" — that is, Iran's medium-range missiles, rather than any intercontinental ballistic missiles Iran could possibly develop.

But if the move raises concerns in Tehran, it's not because of any impact it will have on Iran's missile capability, but rather because the decision represents an enticement to Moscow to support new U.S. sanctions against Iran. At the same time, Russian officials must be smiling wryly at Obama's explanation that the plan was changed because of revised intelligence estimates of Iran's missile capability — since Moscow had never taken seriously the U.S. explanation that the shield was designed to protect against an Iranian threat. (An interceptor system targeting Iranian missiles would be more appropriately stationed in Jordan than in Poland, after all, and Moscow's vehement opposition to the planned deployment on its doorstep was based on fears that it actually was aimed at weakening Russia's own nuclear deterrent, because the system would be able to intercept Russia's missiles in the so-called boost stage.) Meanwhile, Obama's decision will surely raise alarms in the corridors of power in Ukraine, Georgia and other NATO-inclined countries in the former Soviet bloc, who saw the battle over the missile shield as a litmus test of Obama's willingness to stand up to Russia's efforts to re-establish its hegemony in its post–World War II sphere of influence.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made it clear from the outset of the Obama Administration that any effort to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations would require that Washington do more to accommodate Russian concerns — first and foremost, its opposition to the missile shield and to NATO's expansion into former Soviet-bloc countries. Soon after taking office, Obama reportedly wrote a private letter to Medvedev suggesting that the missile shield would become unnecessary were Russia to help the U.S. prevent Iran from developing into a nuclear threat. The Russians also made the missile shield a central issue in negotiations with Washington over a new arms-control deal to replace the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. That treaty expires in December, and Obama has made putting a new treaty in place by then a priority of his Russia policy.

But the key nuclear-proliferation concern facing the Administration is Iran, which Western powers suspect is developing a capacity to build nuclear weapons under the cover of its civilian atomic-energy program. Although a new round of talks between Iran and the main international players has been scheduled for Oct. 1, the Administration is not anticipating a diplomatic breakthrough and is at the same time seeking support for new sanctions aimed at pressing Iran to cease uranium enrichment. Russia just last week reiterated that it opposes new sanctions.

Given the link drawn by Obama, soon after he took office, between Russian cooperation on Iran and the missile-defense plan, it's hard not to read the shelving of the missile shield as at least partly a move to enlist Russian support on Iran. It's not at all certain, however, that such support will be forthcoming. Moscow does not believe Iran is currently pursuing nuclear weapons, and its adversarial relationship with Washington will be maintained as long as the likes of Ukraine and Georgia are being considered for NATO membership. Critics in Washington are already accusing Obama of giving Moscow something for nothing.

Even more alarmed than Washington hawks are U.S. allies in former Soviet-controlled territories. Already, the limits of what former Soviet-satellite states can expect from the West was cruelly demonstrated last year, when the U.S. was unable to do anything to prevent Russian tanks from rolling into Georgia to punish that country's military for attacking South Ossetia. The missile-shield decision will confirm fears that Washington's power to roll back Russian influence in the region is waning.

Still, giving up the protection offered by the missile shield is not particularly difficult for the U.S. — for the simple reason that the shield doesn't offer any significant protection. The system that would have been deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic was in every sense a work in progress whose testing had not yet proved any real-world capacity to deal with a hostile missile threat. In that sense, the missile "shield" was every bit as hypothetical as the Iranian missile threat against which it was ostensibly deployed.