Obama presents plans of missile shield for Europe
Proposal comes as fears grow of nuclear programme in Iran
A US MISSILE shield to deter an Iranian strike on southern Europe is on course to be activated as soon as next year amid growing gloom over international efforts to halt Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons programme.
President Barack Obama announced plans for the shield last year after scrapping a Bush-era Eastern European-based system that had provoked Russian fury.
That system was designed to protect against the threat of a long-range missile strike from Iran, but Moscow claimed that the architecture suggested that it was actually aimed at Russia.
Pentagon officials told 'The Washington Post' yesterday that they were close to a deal to establish a key radar ground station in either Turkey or Bulgaria. Critics accused Mr Obama of kowtowing to Russian pressure and selling out former Soviet allies in Eastern Europe.
The Pentagon, however, noted that new intelligence indicated that the real threat was from mid-range missiles that could strike the Middle East or Southern Europe.
The latest intelligence suggests that Iran is still at least five years away from developing long-range missiles that could reach Western Europe or the East Coast of the US. Intelligence officials question whether long-range missile development is even a priority for the Iranians any more because of the array of US military targets in its backyard. Iran already has a large arsenal of missiles with a range of up to 1,900km.
The news comes amid a growing impasse over Iran's suspected nuclear weapons programme and fears that recent sanctions may not be enough to deter it from building a bomb.
US officials have spoken of a "nightmare scenario" where Israel launches a strike on Iranian nuclear facilities and Iran responds with a salvo of conventional missiles, both against Israel and US military personnel and bases in the region, from Turkey to the Gulf.
Robert Gates, the US Secretary of Defence, described this kind of attack as the most likely at a congressional hearing in June. "If Iran were actually to launch a missile attack on Europe, it wouldn't be just one or two missiles or a handful.
"It would more likely be a salvo kind of attack, where you would be dealing potentially with scores or even hundreds of missiles." Such an attack would have overwhelmed the shield planned by the Bush administration.
The US is anxious to provide reassurance to allies in the Middle East -- not only Israel. Arab countries fearful of a nuclear Iran might seek their own nuclear deterrent, sparking an arms race in the world's most unstable region.
The reconfiguration does not spell the end of the Eastern European system. The Czech Republic said last week that it was still in talks with the US on hosting a radar facility. In the next phase, planned for 2015, there will be land-based Aegis systems built in Romania and Poland by 2018.
The plan has angered Russia, raising fears that Moscow could withdraw from its new Arms Reduction Treaty with the US. The Foreign Ministry said last month that the new configuration "posits the deployment in Europe of a missile defence architecture without taking into account Russia's justified interests and concerns".
Washington has invited Moscow to participate in plans for European missile defence, but Moscow warned: "It seems the American side has begun deploying elements of its missile defence system based on its own decisions and not joint ones." (© The Times, London)