The U.S. says its proposal to base ballistic missile defense systems in eastern Europe is designed to deter what U.S. officials label as "rogue states," particularly Iran. As VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports, Western analysts believe Iran's missile program is still far from posing any threat to Europe or the United States.
Iranian National Security Council Chairman Ali Larijani labeled the U.S. assertion that the proposed missile shield is aimed at Iran as a "joke" because, he said, Iranian missiles cannot reach Europe.
But the Bush Administration and its allies are not laughing. Western security analysts say that while Larijani is correct for now, at least, Iran may someday reach the stage where its missiles could strike not just Europe, but the United States as well.
Ken Katzman, an Iran analyst at the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, says the Bush Administration is taking a long view of a threat that may not develop for some time.
"Iran is believed to be working on missiles of intercontinental range, which I believe is defined as over 3,500 miles [approx. 5600 km] of range," said Ken Katzman. "And [regarding] Iran, I think the latest estimate the intelligence committee made public was that they might be approaching that range by, let's say, 2015 or so, that's not infinity. That's maybe less than a decade away."
But, Katzman adds, given the problems encountered by North Korea - which is believed to be farther along in missile development than Iran - he believes it will be longer than 2015.
For months, U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe drew strong criticism - and warnings - from Russia. Tensions over the proposal seemed to ease Thursday after talks between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader offered use of a Soviet-built radar station in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran, as part of the missile defense system. Still, Paul Kerr, an analyst at the Arms Control Association, says he is puzzled about why the Bush Administration got into a spat with Russia over an Iranian missile threat that has yet to materialize.
"They haven't tested a missile, I think, that warrants putting these interceptors in Eastern Europe and that warrants the sort of attendant tension that it's caused, not only terms in tension with Russia, but it's also costing an enormous amount of diplomatic capital and effort to deal with this problem when we have a lot of other problems on our plate," said Paul Kerr. "And to do this for a threat that I think is not there now isn't worth it. It's not that there's no potential threat from Iran. But it just doesn't pass the cost-benefit test, not right now."
Doug Richardson, editor of the defense journal Jane's Missiles and Rockets, says the interceptors that the U.S. proposes placing in Czechoslovakia and Poland may actually be of little use in protecting Europe from any future Iranian ballistic missile threat. The protection, he says, is for the United States.
"These interceptors are meant to intercept a ballistic missile in the middle of its flight, not towards the end of its flight," said Richardson. "So you don't want to position them near the target being attacked, like you would do with an anti-aircraft missile. You want to position them ideally somewhere in between the launch point and the target so the missile can be attacked while it's still at high altitude, up near the peak of its trajectory in space."
While publicly available information is sketchy, analysts generally concur that Iran's top missile is the Shahab 3, which is based on North Korea's Nodong missile. In fact, say analysts, Iran got much of its missile expertise from North Korea, but there was also help from Russia and China. Richardson says the 3A, a more advanced version, has a range of 1,500 to 1,800 kilometers, depending on the weight of the payload. That could take it as far as Turkey. It could also easily reach Israel, which Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said should be "wiped off the map."
But Ken Katzman says there are glitches with the Shahab missile program.
"The problem is, Iran announced the weapon as operational and in production in 2003, I believe," he said. "But there's still questions about the reliability and the accuracy. Some of the tests are known to have been big failures. So I'm in the camp that's a little less alarmed about Iran's [missile] capabilities than others."
Doug Richardson says Iranian exile opposition groups have been peddling information about what they say is a much more advanced missile in the works, but the intelligence has tended to be unreliable.
The West is locked in a confrontation with Iran over Tehran's alleged bid to become a nuclear weapons power. There is general agreement that that will not happen until at least 2010. But Richardson says that does not mean Iran could have nuclear missiles right away as well because the heavy weight of rudimentary nuclear warheads tend to reduce a missile's range.
"Reliable information on nuclear weapons is hard to come by," he said. "But there's a general feeling in the academic world that a nation attempting to design its nuclear bomb for the first time is likely to come up with a design that's about a ton in weight. So unless they've been particularly lucky or particularly clever, I don't think they'd get first off [right away] a nuclear weapon that could fit into the Shahab 3A."
The Bush Administration says it will study Russia's surprise offer to incorporate the Soviet-built radar in Azerbaijan into the U.S. missile shield system.