President Bush delivered a timely--and accurate--assessment of Iran's improving strategic capabilities this morning, warning that Tehran could have missiles capable of hitting all of Europe and the United States by 2015. Mr. Bush made his comments during a speech at the National Defense University, citing the need for European-based missile defenses to counter the Iranian threat.
"If (Iran) chooses to do so, and the international community does not take steps to prevent it, it is possible Iran could have this capability," Bush said. "And we need to take it seriously — now."
The AP account of the president's address was posted less than three hours ago, so it didn't contain the usual Democratic/Russian response, accusing Mr. Bush of "fear mongering" or "creating a new arms race." But, it's a virtual certainty that spokesmen for the Democrats and the Kremlin will reply in those terms by the end of the day.
But their rhetoric clouds a rather inconvenient truth of missile technology: almost any country with the financial and/or technical resources to acquire or develop short or medium-range missiles can eventually field a crude ICBM, usually within 10 or 20 years.
Consider the case of North Korea. Despite tremendous financial limitations, Pyongyang has, in less than two decades, moved from extended-range SCUDs to a long-range missile capable of reaching the western United States. While that system (the Tapeo Dong-2) still has apparent technical problems--the missile tested last year failed shortly after launch--it demonstrates the ability of a bankrupt state to develop an intercontinental strike capability, however crude it might be.
Unfortunately for the U.S. and its allies, Iran doesn't operate under the same fiscal constraints. Tehran is spending freely on its missile and nuclear programs, and with oil approaching $90 a barrel, it can devote even more resources toward WMD and delivery systems. With assistance from North Korea and Pakistan, Iran has already fielded the Shahab-3 medium-range missile (capable of striking Israel), and has acquired the intermediate range BM-25, which can hit targets in southeastern Europe.
Collectively, the combination of oil money, North Korean missile expertise and Iran's own experience with the Shahab-3 and BM-25 provide a foundation for an ICBM program. True, the number of Iranian ICBMs in 2015 will be very small, but (tipped with nuclear warheads), they would give Tehran a limited ability to hold European and CONUS population centers at risk--and provide a powerful negotiating chip for the mullahs.
Obviously, one of the answers to Iran's missile ambitions is the proposed defensive shield in Eastern Europe. Officially, the Bush Administration still supports that deployment, but its signals on the system have been mixed of late. Earlier today, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, traveling in the region, said that the U.S. might delay "activation" of the missile shield until it has "definitive proof" of a missile threat from Iran.
At a news conference with the Czech Republic Prime Minister, Mr. Gates told reporters that the "activation proposal" was a gesture toward Russia, which adamantly opposes U.S. missile defenses in Eastern Europe. Secretary Gates said that details of the offer have yet to be worked out.
"We would consider tying together activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat — in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Gates said.
That must be music to Vladimir Putin's ears. After railing against the defensive shield for years, the Russians undoubtedly believe that their efforts are finally gaining traction. Look for them to ramp up the propaganda efforts in the coming months, to further delay--and potentially, derail--deployment of missile defenses in the Czech Republic and Poland.
We can only assume that Mr. Gates wasn't speaking out of turn, and that his comments about delayed activation of the defensive sites have the approval of the Commander-in-Chief. And, in fairness, the Defense Secretary sketched his activation proposal in only the vaguest terms. Perhaps its unfair to judge the overture on the basis of a few quotes at a news conference.
But, from our perspective, the contradiction in the messages from Prague and Washington was clear enough. After refusing to budge for years on European missile defenses, the Bush Administration appears to blinked. Depending on how one defines "definitive proof," activation of those sites could be delayed until the first Shahab-5 rockets toward Brussels or London.
Mr. Gates' remarks create some unnecessary wiggle room on an issue where the administration should be offering a united front. By offering to delay site activation, the Defense Secretary is suggesting that (perhaps) the Iranian threat isn't that serious, or that relations with Russia take precedent over protecting millions of people from an emerging threat. We're sure that the Russians, the Iranians and Congressional Democrats will be quick to seize on the contradiction between President Bush's warning, and Mr. Gates "offer" to delay our response to that threat.