In what some have called a dramatic shift in foreign policy, the Obama administration announced yesterday that they will decommission plans for two Bush-era missile shield defense bases in Eastern Europe. The bases were scheduled to be built in Poland and the Czech Republic in response to the perceived threat of Iranian procurement of nuclear weapons.
Vice President Joseph Biden stated in an interview with CNN that there is less concern about the “Iranian potential” as he called it; he believes they do not have the ability to launch a long-range missile at the U.S. now or in the near future.
Prof. Christopher Way, government, expounded on the potential risk.
“It is also a low-risk move from a practical standpoint since we are canceling a system with very limited effectiveness and it appears that Iran will be unable to build nuclear warheads capable of being fitted to long-range missiles in the near-to-medium term,” Way wrote in an e-mail. “You are giving up an ineffective defense against a threat that will only be real in the fairly distant future — not a very big price to pay for possible diplomatic gains in multiple areas.”
Although the bases are being scrapped, Prof. Sarah Kreps, government, stressed that this is not an eradication of missile defense, but rather a restructuring.
“The Bush administration’s vision of missile defense was intended to stop Iranian Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles using a ground-based architecture whose technical merits were considered dubious. More recent intelligence has shown that Iranian development of these long-range ICBMs has slowed, and short and medium-range missiles has accelerated,” Kreps stated in an e-mail.
According to Kreps, the Obama administration’s revamp of the defense program includes creating a system that will use short-and medium-range missile interceptors.
“A better counter to these is the theatre missile defense system that uses an Aegis-based architecture [which most experts agree is] the best technical option for the problem of short to medium-range Iranian ballistic missiles,” Kreps wrote. “An added advantage is that the U.S. does not have to antagonize Russia, but my view is that the intelligence and technical assessments were the dominant factors in shifting the technical approach to missile defense in Europe.”
The decision has been met with mixed reactions from the countries involved, including Russia.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think it’s likely to lead to an improvement in relations with Russia. They were very concerned with the deployment of those systems in Poland and the Czech Republic,” said Prof. Matthew Evangelista, government.
Way, whose expertise lies on international relations and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, agreed.
“It is a bold move in pursuit of the Obama administration’s strategy of ‘hitting the reset button’ with Russia and their efforts to come up with a revamped strategy for dealing with Tehran after the contentious Iranian election derailed their initial moves,” he wrote.
Although concerns have been voiced by both Poland and the Czech Republic, Evangelista believes that the bases would not have had a bearing on their national security in the long run.
“The system would not have made any difference if Russia were determined to attack those countries. It was always something symbolic … there is not a lot the U.S. could do without starting a major war,” Evangelista said. “It’s not surprising that they would express concern and imply that it meant less U.S. commitment to those countries. The U.S. should try to reassure them that it wouldn’t affect [its] commitment.”
Evangelista also stated that the initial plans to place the bases in Poland and the Czech Republic “seemed politically motivated.”
“It’s really a matter of improvement in political relations. So many years after the Cold War we shouldn’t be talking about relations with Russia as a matter of defense. We’re not enemies,” he said.
Prof. John Weiss, history, founded “Team Iran-Cornell” in December 2006; it is a group of about 30 Cornell faculty and students who have been following Iran and Iranian-American relations. He affirmed that this was not an unexpected move to those who had been following the situation, but rather the result of a long series of conferences aiming to adjust the policy.
“Saying it’s today’s decision may be true, but there were moves to downshift missile defense that were announced back in May 2009,” Weiss said. “This is something that we have expected to happen … and there is general approval of it opening up more possibilities for better relationships with Iran and Russia. It will be possible for Iran to see this as a signal and a positive step forward.”
Although the professors agreed that this is a positive step in regards to relations with Russia, Way wondered if there is perhaps more to this decision than what meets the eye —namely a deal brokered between the U.S. and Russia.
“The really interesting question is whether there is some kind of behind-the-scenes deal with Russia about a tougher stance towards Iran’s nuclear program. That is something to watch closely in the next couple months,” Way wrote.
In any case, the change in foreign policy is being met with hope by those who see this as a stepping-stone in the right direction.
“This is an opportunity to move forward and to move in ways that may be effective,” Weiss said.