Wider Europe

October 1, 2009

Policy Brief
America, Europe, Iran, and Physics
by Joseph Wood1
September was a big month for Western efforts to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions. To recap: U.S. President Barack Obama announced that his administration would abandon Bushera plans to build a third missile defense site in Poland and the Czech Republic, arguing that the American intelligence community now assessed that the longer-range missile threat to much of Europe and the United States had slowed while Iran was pursuing short- and medium-range missiles more rapidly than expected. Obama announced a “new” plan to focus on countering these accelerated threats. Iran, for its part, rejected talks on its nuclear program as demanded by the West but suggested broad talks on a range of issues, an offer the West eagerly accepted. At the opening of the United Nations General Assembly, Obama pushed his call for nuclear disarmament and sternly warned Iran and North Korea of consequences for failing to respond to international calls for cooperation. With U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy, he revealed the existence of a previously secret site near Qom, Iran, thought to be part of Iran’s nuclear program. Iran responded that the site was not within 180 days of being operational and thus not required to be reported to international inspectors.
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Summary: September saw a major U.S. policy shift on missile defense in Europe, revelations of a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear site, threats of sanctions against Iran, and preparations for a new discussion between Iran and the West. But in the midst of so much apparent change, many facts remained constant. Unfortunately, the two winners seem to be Iran and its sometime-supporter, Russia.

In the midst of this, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed to offer hope that Russia would drop its resistance to stronger sanctions on Iran, though other Russian sources later seemed to walk that point back, repeating earlier cases of Russian rhetorical vacillation. After the revelation of the secret site in Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov downplayed its significance and questioned what exact sanctions should be discussed. Iran responded to these events by launching a barrage of short- and medium-range missiles before its talks with Western powers were to begin. In the background, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad repeated his now familiar denials of the Holocaust and his fervent wish for the disappearance of Israel, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reminded listeners of the urgency of dealing with Iran. Quite a month, and much seems to have changed. In fact, much remained the same, and the significant changes that did occur were less obvious. On the threat side, the existence of the third site in Iran had been known for some time. Iran’s missile display on September 27 confirmed the long-known validity of the short- and medium-range threats that President Obama prioritized.

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Joseph Wood is senior resident fellow with the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). The views expressed are those of the author and do not represent the views of GMF.

Wider Europe

Policy Brief
It is far from clear whether the West is closer to sanctions on Iran, or to cooperation with Iran, than in the past. The previous behavior of Russia and Iran suggests not. Russian officials announced their pleasure that the United States had agreed to their own perception of the lack of threat from Iranian missiles and described the episode as another failure of American intelligence. Not much new in all that, especially the notion of inconsistent intelligence conclusions on Iran, or on any possible threat. Another non-change was the idea of developing defenses against Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles. NATO has long been committed to this concept, though programmatic progress has been slow. Such defenses, including the possible use of existing ship-based systems, were always part of a larger missile defense scheme. Developing these systems did not require a shift away from longer-range defenses in Europe. Indeed, that shift may make it harder to develop and fund short- and medium-range defenses. A third non-change involves the laws of physics. Albert Einstein showed that Newton’s “laws” were not the whole story, but they are a fairly close approximation for most purposes, even for rocket science. The missile defense locations in Central Europe were not selected arbitrarily. Orbital mechanics is a well-studied field. To provide an effective defense for a maximum of Europe and North America, a missile defense site to engage long-range missiles was needed in Central or Western Europe. Engaging an object on an intercontinental trajectory is not like monitoring rocket launches from nearby, where proximity can be helpful. It requires, at least using the planned technology, the ability to track and engage in a timely fashion, which requires distance (not too much, not too little—like skeet shooting, to use an oversimplified analogy). This fact was explained carefully to European allies and to Russia, whose own physicists did not need help grasping the science. Thus, if one were looking for a reason not to proceed with the European missile defense site, perhaps to garner Russian cooperation in other areas, the wellknown physics of the threat could not be altered. The threat itself would have to change. Perhaps this problem is technically surmountable, but the administration has offered no details as to how that would be accomplished, and those systems tested and known to work so far would not seem suitable. A fourth item that did not change is the history of a few months earlier, when Iran successfully launched an object into orbit. Such a launch capacity is widely recognized as tantamount to the capacity to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). This is not the same as having and being able to deliver a nuclear warhead by ICBM. But those who have seen the films of the many now-hilarious failures of American rockets in the 1950s will recall that Sputnik provided a great scare to the United States precisely because it signaled that America’s two oceans were no longer reliable protection against long-range missiles. But some things did change in this fast-paced month. One was the quality of the transatlantic defense link. Missile defense provided a needed update to the shared purpose of transatlantic security. The Iranian threat was deemed to be real, to Europe and the United States. It was, and is, a threat best faced by a unified West. The concrete manifestation of the transatlantic defense link, American presence in Europe, was set to change definitively from a presence once oriented to Cold War armies to one ready to counter 21st century threats, and to include in that defense the allies who have joined NATO since the fall of the Berlin Wall 20 years ago. The American commitment to Europe is now in greater question, at least to many in the region. A second change was the boost given to Iranian and Russian confidence. Iran was shown to have concealed nuclear facilities; yet Western (especially American) uncertainty about the nature of the Iranian threat was also evident for all to see. The Iranian president repeated his hatred of Jews and of Israel. In return, Iran faces only the vague prospect of possible sanctions and will join other nations in a dialogue that Iran itself fashioned. Russia sees President Obama’s decision as proof that its views on Iran are vindicated and, at least as importantly, as a reversal of an American and NATO incursion into the former Warsaw Pact states. This is, therefore, a victory for those in the Kremlin who argue that the West should, and will, allow Russia a sphere of influence. Whether or not that was what Obama intended, this is certainly how the decision has registered in Russia. A third change was in American thinking about the appropriate timing of any reaction to a potential Iranian long-range threat. In defending the decision, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that the previously planned system would not have been operational until 2017 anyway (a date much later than previously planned), and the new system will be more flexible. Again, given the laws of physics, the flexibility of short-range defenses to attend to long-range threats is not immediately obvious, and Gates did not elaborate. Moreover, the delay suggests that the United States is content to wait until the longrange threat from Iran is clearer.

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Wider Europe

Policy Brief
Having just announced publicly that our estimate of the Iranian threat has changed in a matter of months, one might have thought that American policymakers would conclude that the wisdom of relying on the precision of such projections is dubious. It would seem to make more sense to get defenses in place sooner rather than later, especially given the fact that trying to introduce defenses after Iran had, by surprise, acquired a long-range capability would seem to give Tehran an incentive to use its capability before it was negated, if they intended to use it at all. So a fast-paced September brought no change, and much change. It was not a month when the laws of physics, or the intentions of Iran and its sometime supporter Russia, showed much mutability. The eventual effects, on the other hand, of the mutability of Western responses to those intentions may be profound.
Joseph Wood, Senior Resident Fellow, GMF
Joseph R. Wood joined the German Marshall Fund of the United States in November 2008 as senior resident fellow. His work covers Europe, Eurasia, and transatlantic relations. From 2005 until coming to GMF, he was deputy assistant to the Vice President for National Security Affairs at the White House, with responsibility for all policy involving Europe, Eurasia, and Africa. He is a retired Air Force colonel, and his career included operational and command fighter assignments in Korea and Europe; faculty duty in the Department of Political Science at the Air Force Academy where he taught U.S. foreign and defense policy; service at the Pentagon as speech writer for the Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force; two years as special advisor for Europe in the Office of the Vice President; and temporary assignments in the Joint Staff, the U.S. Mission to the Conventional Forces in Europe Talks in Vienna, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and NATO SHAPE Headquarters in Mons, Belgium.

About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a nonpartisan American public policy and grantmaking institution dedicated to promoting greater cooperation and understanding between North America and Europe. GMF does this by supporting individuals and institutions working on transatlantic issues, by convening leaders to discuss the most pressing transatlantic themes, and by examining ways in which transatlantic cooperation can address a variety of global policy challenges. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a permanent memorial to Marshall Plan assistance, GMF maintains a strong presence on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to its headquarters in Washington, DC, GMF has seven offices in Europe: Berlin, Bratislava, Paris, Brussels, Belgrade, Ankara, and Bucharest.

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