(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration has given its clearest indication of a willingness to shelve a proposed ballistic missile defense umbrella in eastern Europe, linking movement on the program with Iran’s future conduct.
“This is one of those issues that really will rest with the decisions made by the Iranian government,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters Tuesday after a meeting with her Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg.
“If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians with respect to what we believe to be their pursuit of nuclear weapons, then we will reconsider where we stand [on the missile defense plans],” she said. “But we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any behavior change.”
Clinton also acknowledged that the administration had “primarily technical” concerns about missile defense. “Obviously, we expect any system that we deploy to be able to operate effectively to achieve the goals that are set.”
The Bush administration last year negotiated agreements to deploy 10 silo-based missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar tracking station in the Czech Republic. Together, the planned facilities would aim to protect the U.S. and its allies against missile attacks from hostile countries, tracking, intercepting and destroying enemy missiles outside of the atmosphere.
Washington has long named Iran as the greatest potential threat in this regard, citing its missile program and a nuclear energy program which the West suspects is a cover for attempts to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran last week launched its first satellite, demonstrating further its mastery of sophisticated ballistic missile technology.
The U.S. currently deploys missile defense facilities in Alaska and California, defending U.S. territory against potential missile attack from another hostile source, North Korea. Testing missile defense capabilities, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency says it has since 2001 carried out 47 attempted “hit to kill” intercepts of target missiles. In 37 cases the intercepts were successful, most recently last December.
Some Democrats have questioned the system’s cost and its technical viability. Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin said late last month that he would “love to see” cuts to the missile defense program.
Vice President Joe Biden at a security conference in Munich, Germany last weekend said missile defense efforts would continue provided the technology was proven to work and was cost-effective.
Biden also said the U.S. would continue consulting with Russia and NATO allies on the issue.
The comments came during a speech in which Biden said it was time to “press the reset button” in relations with Russia.
They prompted speculation that the U.S. may be willing to use missile defense as a bargaining chip with Moscow, which is strongly opposed to a defense shield in eastern Europe. Russia has already indicated a readiness to deal, saying that if the U.S. drops the plan, then it will reverse an earlier decision for a retaliatory deployment of short-range missiles close to Poland’s borders.
Although the U.S. stresses that the system is designed to counter countries like Iran, Russia charges that it would weaken its own nuclear deterrent. The issue has become a key area of disagreement in bilateral relations, hampering cooperation in other areas.
At her press conference with Schwarzenberg, Clinton voiced gratitude to the Czech Republic for “stepping up and being a partner to provide a strong defense in Europe against Iranian aggression.”
Both the Czech and Polish governments came under fire at home for their decisions to collaborate in the missile defense program, with opinion polls in both countries showing majorities opposed it.
In Prague, the Senate approved the agreement late last year, but the lower Chamber of Deputies has delayed doing so. Lawmakers urged postponement of a vote until such time as the U.S. makes its position clearer on the future of the project.
The target date for deploying the system was 2013, but as he flew to Washington for meetings with Clinton, Levin and others, Schwarzenberg told reporters he expected that the U.S. plan may now be delayed, possibly by five or six years.
At the weekend security conference in Munich addressed by Biden, representatives of both the Czech and Polish governments voiced support for the missile defense program.
Citing an “increasing threat of WMD proliferation in the Middle East,” Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra said Russia should not be given a veto over the planned deployment.
“Security is a matter of strategy; it requires us to think and build solutions well ahead.,” he told the gathering. “It is too late to start building a defense shield when the missile is already in the air.”