WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's decision to abandon a Bush-era 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. 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 President George W. Bush.
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 its western border as an affront. The shift raised the prospect of greater cooperation between the two powers on containing the Iranian threat and in negotiating a renewal of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or START, which expires in early December.
For Obama, it is a step fraught with some risk. Within hours of his announcement, charges were flying that in his first major confrontation with the Russians, he had backed down, giving in to Moscow's opposition to Bush's plan to place missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"The politics of this was driving him in the other direction, against appearing to back down," said William Perry, who served as defense secretary in the Clinton administration. "But he went with where the technology is today - and where the threat is today."
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 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.
"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. "But this new ballistic missile defense program will best address the threat posed by Iran's" missile program.
"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 Gates said. "This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies."
During last year's presidential campaign, missile defense was tricky territory for Obama. His liberal base was allergic to the very words. Obama, eager to show that he was neither a neophyte nor soft on defense, talked about embracing those technologies that were "proven and cost-effective."
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.
Officials said both systems would cost around $5 billion over the next decade or more to develop and deploy, but they said the new approach would buy far more missiles for that money.
The move is likely to please some in Eastern Europe, who had been angered by Bush's plans for their countries. When Obama visited Prague in April, several hundred Czechs marched in the capital to decry the proposal, carrying balloons and placards, including one that read, "Yes We Can - Say No to Missile Shield."
But at home, Obama's decision sparked immediate condemnation from Republicans in Congress, who accused the administration of abandoning America's allies and putting the country's security at risk. House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said in a statement that the move "does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe. It shows a willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world."
That concern was echoed by Obama's chief rival during the 2008 campaign, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who called the move away from a missile system designed to counter long-range weapons "seriously misguided."
In his briefing, Gates anticipated those criticisms, and fired back strongly. "Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," Gates said. "The security of Europe has been a vital national interest of the United States for my entire career."
For Gates, the president's decision is an especially dramatic reversal. In December 2006, shortly after assuming office as Bush's defense secretary, Gates recommended initiating the missile defense system based in the Czech Republic and Poland.
White House officials said Gates' support of the new approach gives it credibility and serves to undermine the accusations made by the president's Republican adversaries.
Plan's three stages
Obama's new missile defense plan will unfold in three stages. By 2011, the Pentagon will deploy Navy Aegis ships equipped with SM-3 interceptors in the eastern Mediterranean.
A second phase in about 2015 will field an upgraded, land-based SM-3 in allied countries, and discussions are underway with Poland and the Czech Republic on basing the missiles in their territory, Gates said. In 2018, the third phase will deploy a larger and more capable missile, which will allow the missile defense shield to defend Europe and the United States against short- and intermediate-range rockets, and eventually, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Right now, Obama is betting that he can assuage bruised feelings in Europe. And he is betting that his credibility will rise in the Middle East, where he can now argue that the U.S. missile shield will defend both Israel and the Arab states, notably Saudi Arabia and Egypt. There are signs that all of them may be interested in nuclear capabilities of their own - especially if they believe the United States will not stand up to Iran.
Information from the New York Times was used in this report.