NATO chief in call for anti-Iran arms shield
US 'fully backs' plan for €200m nuclear missile defence system
Nato's secretary general has called for the construction of a new missile defence system to protect Europe from the threat of Iranian nuclear attack.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen told a British newspaper he had full American backing for a proposed €200m defensive 'shield', which he hopes will be agreed in November at a summit of members in Lisbon.
He was speaking after weapons inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency warned last week that Iran had passed a crucial nuclear threshold which took it nearer to being able to arm ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
"Based on their public statements we know that Iran already has missiles with a range sufficient to hit targets in Europe," Mr Rasmussen said. "If Iran eventually acquires a nuclear capability, that will be very dangerous and a direct threat to the allies."
He claimed that the new system could be set up in co-operation with Russia, which has angrily opposed previous American attempts to set up missile shields in Europe.
Iran's longest-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3 and the Qiam-1, have ranges of about 2,500 miles and could hit targets in Turkey and Greece.
Some will see the plan for a new missile shield as a tacit admission that America has rejected the risky option of launching air attacks on Iranian nuclear and military facilities, and given up hopes of deterring Iran from building a bomb.
Europe's anti-missile defences at present largely consist of American-made SM-3 missiles, based on US warships, which would attempt to shoot down attacking ballistic missiles.
Speaking at his residence in south Brussels, a day after returning from meeting US President Barack Obama in Washington, Mr Rasmussen said he believed it would be relatively straightforward to set up a new defensive system.
Under the plan, an anti-ballistic missile 'shield' would be extended across Nato's territory, co-ordinated by a new command system that would "knit together" existing radar and other sensor systems, with land-based SM-3 missiles.
"In a nutshell we could build an effective missile defence system to protect all our population by connecting existing systems," he said.
"Even in a time of economic constraints it would cost very little -- €200m over 10 years -- shared between 28 allies. For a modest cost we can protect 900 million citizens. If Nato decides to go ahead and develop a missile defence system it should be accompanied by an invitation to the Russians to co-operate.
"This would make sense from a security point of view. Realistically we would have a Nato system alongside a Russian system."
Supporters of the plan believe it could fundamentally alter the troubled relationship between Nato and Russia, ushering in a new era of co-operation. They have already held talks with their Russian counterparts to set up a 'security roof', linking missile defence systems of the US, other Nato countries, and Russia.
Mr Obama scrapped his predecessor's plans to site anti-ballistic missiles in Poland because of Russian anger. But Nato officials hope Iran's progress towards nuclear weapons may now help to change Russian minds.
Weapons inspectors announced last week that Iranian nuclear scientists had enriched enough uranium for a warhead, although miniaturising an atomic device and constructing an effective nuclear missile are highly demanding technical tasks that Iran is some way from achieving.
Inspectors will also criticise Tehran in a report this week for repeated failures to co-operate.
Not all missile experts are convinced Iran will pose a threat to Europe, however. Robert Hewson, the editor of the industry publication Jane's Air-launched Weapons, said: "Missile defence is more about shovelling money to American contractors than protecting people in Basingstoke."