(Corrects title to Secretary of Defense in 2nd paragraph)
By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - Washington acknowledged on Thursday that Iran’s long-range missile program posed less of a threat to the West than previously thought. But the United States and its allies will still seek to rein in Tehran’s nuclear program.
REDUCED LONG-RANGE MISSILE THREAT
U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said what many diplomats and analysts have long maintained — that the threat of Iran’s long-range missile program is not as acute as previously thought. Despite Iranian announcements of significant progress made in its long-range missile program, analysts have pointed to technical problems and questioned the veracity of some of the official Iranian statements.
Without a long-range delivery vehicle for a nuclear weapon, there is clearly little threat that Iran would be able to successfully fire a nuclear, or any other kind of warhead, at the United States if it wanted to.
However, analysts and intelligence officials have said that Iran’s nuclear program represents a medium- or long-term threat and one that can be dealt with diplomatically. There is no concern that Tehran, which insists its nuclear program is peaceful and is not aimed at building atom bombs, could have a nuclear warhead anytime soon, they say.
The expansion of Iran’s uranium enrichment program has slowed down in recent months, according to the U.N. nuclear watchdog in Vienna, though this may be the result of technical problems and not political decisions. Most Western intelligence agencies believe the soonest Iran could have an atomic weapon is in several years that would be a worst-case scenario.
Western diplomats say there is therefore ample time to negotiate with the Iranians to try persuade them to abandon the program. Both Brazil and Argentina were persuaded to abandon covert atomic weapons projects in the 1980s.
Iran has agreed to meet on Oct. 1 with the United States and other major powers concerned about Tehran’s nuclear program.
President Barack Obama’s critics in Washington accused him caving into the Russians, who were furious about the missile shield plan. Moscow saw the project as encroaching on its sphere of influence, namely post-communist central Europe, and said the system could present a threat to Russia itself.
Obama’s critics may also accuse him of trying to placate the Iranians in an attempt to improve the possibility of striking a nuclear deal with the Islamic Republic.
But critics of the missile shield in the United States and Europe had maintained that the technology envisaged in the system proposed by former President George W. Bush had not been proven to work and questioned the value of pursuing such an expensive and politically contentious project that might not provide real protection.
NATO will not abandon plans for a European missile shield, analysts and diplomats say, but will pursue a different approach with new technology with a better chance of success. It will also cooperate more with Russia in the process.
Gates said different missiles and sensor systems would be used which should ease Russia’s concerns that its own defense capabilities were being threatened.
He said Washington would deploy Aegis ships equipped with interceptor missiles in northern and southern Europe to deal with any immediate security threats. Construction of a land-based system in Europe would begin around 2015, he said, though it is unclear what the system will be like.
Ironically security risks for Europe may have decreased as a result of the decision to overhaul the missile shield. Some say that Moscow’s decision to invade NATO-aspirant Georgia after Tbilisi sent troops into its breakaway South Ossetia region in August 2008 was meant to show the West that Russia will not tolerate NATO moving too close to Russian borders.
If its concerns about the missile shield are assuaged, Moscow’s leaders should feel more secure and less eager to punish Georgia, Ukraine or other neighboring states in the future — whether with military action or by cutting off the supply of Russian natural gas.
The more secure Russia feels, diplomats and analysts say, the more secure Europe can feel.
Editing by David Storey