President Obama's domestic agenda has met with hurdles on Capitol Hill, but his plans to shift the missile-defense system in Europe have also met with increasing apprehension as reports emerge that Iran has the capability to make a nuclear bomb.
Hours after the president announced a dramatically different focus for missile defense, one of his top allies, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., expressed concern about what she called an "abrupt decision" and noted that in July, the Senate unanimously stated that the U.S. missile defense system in Europe should be capable of protecting the United States as well as Europe.
The president's announcement came at the same time The Associated Press reported that a study drafted by the International Atomic Energy Agency concluded that Tehran had sufficient information to develop a bomb and is likely to overcome problems it faced in creating a delivery system. Officials at the world's top nuclear watchdog believe, according to the AP, that Iran is on its way to developing a missile system capable of carrying an atomic warhead.
The agency said in a statement that it has no concrete proof of a nuclear weapons program in Iran, and that "continuing allegations that the IAEA was withholding information on Iran are politically motivated and totally baseless."
But the report is in line with what Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the United States knows about Iran's nuclear capabilities.
"Iran is developing nuclear capacity at a fairly rapid clip; they have been doing so for quite some time," the president said in June at a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"Iran's possession of nuclear weapons would trigger an arms race in the Middle East that would be bad not just for U.S. security, it would be bad for the security of the entire region, including, by the way, Iranian security."
Obama said Thursday one of the reasons for the change in the Eastern European missile-defense program is new intelligence about Iran's missile programs, which shows that the country is more capable creating short- and medium-range missiles that can reach Europe than long-range missiles.
"This new ballistic missile defense program will best address the threat posed by Iran's ongoing ballistic missile defense program," Obama told reporters in a hastily arranged news conference, as the news of the shift took many by surprise.
Iranian leadership said it is only working on an enriched uranium program for peaceful reasons but has failed to divulge anymore details. In an interview with NBC this week, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, "We don't need such a weapon," adding that the uranium enrichment program will never be closed down here in Iran."
A Shift in Missile Defense Policy
Thursday's announcement is a dramatic departure from the Bush administration's proposal for permanent land-based interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. Instead, Obama, acting on what he said was the "unanimous" advice of Defense Secretary Gates and the entire Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the new system would be replaced by more mobile missiles on ships in the sea and around Europe.
The White House said new technology supports such a shift, and it would be more cost-effective and provide more security to U.S. interests and allies.
The second reason for this change is Iran. The Pentagon said the decision was based on intelligence indicating Iran was struggling in its intercontinental missile program but building many more short- and medium-range missiles.
The changes will slowly be phased in -- with the first phase under way by 2011. Gates said Thursday that one kind of smaller missiles has already been equipped on 20 Aegis cruisers and destroyers. The land-based missiles won't be dependent on location, and they can be placed anywhere on the continent. The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. James "Hoss" Cartwright, said they could be placed in northern/central Europe, southern Europe and in the vicinity of the Black Sea and Caucuses.
"I believe this new approach provides a better missile defense capability for our forces in Europe, for our European allies and, eventually, for our homeland than the program I recommended almost three years ago," Gates told reporters. "It is more adapted to the threat we see developing and takes advantage of new technical capabilities available to us today. As long as the Iranian threat persists, we will pursue proven and cost-effective missile defenses."
The administration insists this is a better way to protect their allies, but critics are skeptical.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the leading Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said lawmakers were not properly informed of the change and that it would hurt U.S. allies in the region.
"How many times have the intelligence estimates been wrong? As many times as they have been right," the former presidential candidate said on the Senate floor Thursday. "This is not the way to do business. I think it sends the wrong signal, to the Russians, and our friends and allies."
Others called the decision ill-advised.
"I think it shows willful determination to continue ignoring the threat posed by some of the most dangerous regimes in the world while taking one of the most important defenses against Iran off the table," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday. "The president should reconsider this decision and stand with our allies and do what's right for the safety of the American people."
The issue is likely to stay in the headlines next week as Obama heads to New York to chair a Security Council Summit on nonproliferation. Meanwhile, the State Department has sent a high-level delegation to Europe to brief allies on the change in the missile-defense shield policy.
Russians may be happy about the change -- Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin today praised the decision as correct and brave -- but U.S. delegates will have their work cut out for them when they face their European counterparts.
In some quarters, the Obama administration's move received a harsh response.
"Betrayal! The U.S. sold us to Russia and stabbed us in the back," the Polish tabloid Fakt declared on its front page, according to the AP. An editorial in Czech newspaper Hospodarske Novine said: "An ally we rely on has betrayed us and exchanged us for its own, better relations with Russia, of which we are rightly afraid."
The AP also reported that Polish President Lech Kaczynski expressed concern that the new strategy leaves Poland in a dangerous "gray zone" between Western Europe and the old Soviet sphere.