Asked how he plans to deal with Iran, President Obama has said, on multiple occasions, that he wants a "comprehensive approach." Presumably, that means that all options are on the table, but a closer reading reveals that Mr. Obama favors policies based on diplomacy and economic incentives. Offer enough carrots, the thinking goes, and even the mullahs in Tehran will give up the nuclear weapons and long-range missile programs that threaten to destabilize the Middle East.
Perhaps someone ought to ask the president how that approach is faring, given Tuesday's space launch in Iran. It received little attention in the United States, but Tehran's successful orbiting of a small satellite represents a milestone for the Islamic Republic. After years of trying, Iranian engineers have mastered the technologies associated with multi-stage rockets and putting a small package in orbit around the earth.
That puts Iran in a relatively exclusive club; since the beginning of the Space Age more than 50 years ago, only 10 nations have managed to put a satellite into orbit. While the Iranian craft is crude by our standards, Tehran can still boast about its accomplishment. A number of wealthier and more technologically advanced nations--including South Korea, Brazil and Australia--are still working on their own indigenous launch systems. With Tuesday's launch, Iran officially has a space program, and the bragging rights that go with it.
But more importantly, the satellite launch represents an important breakthrough for Iran's ballistic missile program. The same technology that put that satellite in orbit can be easily refined, improving the accuracy and payload of the missiles which double as space boosters.
Some details of the Iranian launch have not been revealed, but the Safir ("Messenger") rocket is believed to be a two-stage configuration, combining a Shahab-3 medium range missile and a North Korean-built second stage. The Shahab-3 can already reach targets in Israel; the two-stage variant could deliver warheads to much or Europe--or beyond.
Pyongyang's support for the Iranian program cannot be over-stated. North Korea gave Tehran its first SCUDs 20 years ago, and remains a key supplier of ballistic missile technology. Iran's primary weapon for striking Israel (the Shahab-3) is based on Pyongyang's No Dong design, and Tehran's longer-range missiles contain a wide range of North Korean components.
But the list of export customers does't end there. Kim Jong-il's regime has also been instrumental in providing missile technology to other countries, including Syria, Pakistan and Egypt. North Korea remains the largest proliferator of ballistic missile systems in the world. By some estimates, missile technology and associated equipment represents Pyongyang's only viable export, and a critical source of hard currency.
So, how does this impact that much-desired "comprehensive" approach? For starters, it illustrates the limitations of diplomacy. Simply stated, there aren't enough carrots to persuade a country (like Iran) to abandon its missile or nuclear programs. For more than three years, representatives from the EU-3 (Great Britain, France and Germany) have been trying to persuade Tehran to abandon its nuclear efforts. Today, Iran is closer than ever to having a nuclear weapon, although it's still willing to talk with European emissaries.
North Korea offers a similar example. The so-called Six Party Talks, sponsored by the U.S. and Pyongyang's neighbors in northeast Asia, yielded an agreement after years of fits and starts. While the agreement will (supposedly) end the DPRK nuclear program, there is no guarantee of success.
Quite the opposite; given North Korea's propensity for cheating, there is ample reason to believe that Kim Jong-il will simply "milk" the accord for increased aid, while retaining a covert weapons production capability and a small nuclear stockpile. It's worth remembering that Pyongyang was up to its usual tricks during the Six Party negotiations. While its diplomats haggled in Beijing, North Korea dispatched other representatives to conclude new missile deals, and build a nuclear facility in Syria, later destroyed by the Israeli Air Force.
Then how should the Obama Administration deal with Iran and North Korea, assuming that diplomacy fails? At the very least, the White House shouldn't dilute options that offer potential protection from missiles--tipped with chemical, biological or nuclear warheads--launched by Tehran or Pyongyang.
But there are disturbing signs that Mr. Obama and his fellow Democrats may do just that. Despite growing threats from rogue states, the nation's ballistic missile defense program is facing an uncertain future, at best. As Michael Tremoglie notes in today's Philadelphia Bulletin, the Obama team has vowed a "pragmatic" and "cost effective" approach to missile defense.
That means exacting test criteria that developmental systems may never be able to meet. It will delay operational deployments of tracking radars and interceptor missiles in locations where such defenses are needed. A proposed BMD site in eastern Europe is now apparently on hold; that assessment is based on Russia's recent decision to cancel an offensive missile deployment along the Polish border. Apparently, Moscow received assurances that the U.S. will "go slow" on extending its missile shield to its newest NATO allies.
Meanwhile, Iran is celebrating its latest advance in missile technology and North Korea may be preparing to test its long-range Tapeo Dong 2 missile. On the day that Tehran launched its first satellite, intelligence analysts detected a possible TD-2 airframe, en route to a test site on North Korea's eastern coast. The facility is the same one where Pyongyang conducted a similar launch in 2006, but that missile exploded after less than 100 seconds of flight.
It's readily apparent that both Iran and North Korea are testing the new president; the timing of these events is anything but coincidental. The Obama Administration has every right to develop its own strategy for dealing with rogue states, but these policy options should also address the worst-case scenario: the very real prospect that negotiations and economic incentives will fail.
At that point, the U.S. and its allies will face the prospect of Iran and North Korea, both armed with nuclear weapons and the delivery systems to reach distant targets, including portions of the United States. As we face that critical moment, the importance of missile defense has never been more apparent.
A "comprehensive approach" is fine, but policies that limit or reject critical options are deeply misguided, in political-speak. We would use another word: dangerous.