As NATO Wraps Up A Deal on Missile Defense, the Threat Remains Unnamed

By Patrick Goodenough | November 22, 2010 | 4:59 AM EST

President Obama speaks during his news conference at the NATO summit in Lisbon, Portugal, Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010. (AP Photo)

( – The Obama administration is highlighting its achievement in getting NATO partners to agree to a joint Europe-based missile defense shield, while remaining vague about the source of the threat making it necessary in the first place.

At the NATO summit in Portugal, Iran – at the insistence of Turkey – was not publicly named as the nation that poses a potential missile threat.

Iran also was absent from the new Strategic Concept document unveiled at the summit and adopted by NATO leaders, which said only that military acquisitions in “many regions and countries around the world” include “the proliferation of ballistic missiles, which poses a real and growing threat to the Euro-Atlantic area.”

The 28-member transatlantic alliance agreed to develop a system designed to intercept and destroy any missiles threatening the NATO region, and to invite Russia to cooperate in the plan.

The Strategic Concept, which charts NATO’s course for the decade ahead, was based on a report drafted earlier by an expert panel led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Unlike the text adopted in Lisbon, that report did not fail to name Iran as the chief missile threat.

“Defending against the threat of a possible ballistic missile attack from Iran has given birth to what has become, for NATO, an essential military mission,” the report stated.

However, NATO member Turkey balked at signing up to any proposal in which Tehran was named, and NATO secretary-general Anders Fogh Rasmussen in recent weeks dropped references to Iran in his public comments about missile defense.

The reticence was evident again at the weekend summit, where both Rasmussen and Obama held press conferences at which missile defense was discussed at some length, but without any reference to Iran. (Obama’s only mention of Iran was in the context of sanctions.)

At a press briefing highlighting the administration’s success in getting NATO allies onboard on the missile defense plan, U.S. Ambassador to NATO Ivo Daalder and deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also both steered clear of naming Iran.

Instead, Daalder referred to “missiles coming from the Middle East” while Rhodes spoke of “ballistic missiles emanating from the Middle East region.”

One NATO leader not coy about identifying Iran as the source of the threat was French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

France accepted this project first because we believe that there is a growing threat of missiles,” he told a press conference in Lisbon.

“No name appears in the public documents of NATO but France calls a spade a spade – the missile threat today is Iran,” he continued. “So, if one day Iran fires a missile toward Europe, it is certainly desirable that we can intercept it.”

Later during the briefing Sarkozy added, “We are not obsessed with Iran and we do not exclusively intend the anti-missile shield for Iran, but I do recall that the Iranian missile program has been condemned by the [U.N.] Security Council.”

Turkish President Abdullah Gul on Saturday welcomed the Strategic Concept, saying that it was “in line with our expectations. We are very pleased about that.”

Earlier this month, Gul declared that Turkey would not accept any document that singles out Iran.

“Mentioning one country, Iran ... is wrong and will not happen,” he said. “A particular country will not be targeted.”

Is Russia onboard or not?

The Bush administration planned a missile defense umbrella to defend its allies from the threat of long-range Iranian missiles with facilities in Poland and the Czech Republic, but ran into strong opposition from Moscow.

Although the Pentagon insisted that the proposed system would not weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent the Kremlin insisted that it threatened its security and threatened retaliation.

As a key component of his initiative to “reset” strained relations with Russia, Obama after a lengthy review announced 14 months ago that he was scrapping his predecessor’s plan.

Instead he proposed an alternative “phased adaptive approach” designed to protect first south-eastern Europe, and eventually all of Europe, against short- and medium-range missiles.

NATO has now agreed to move ahead with a NATO project built around the phased adaptive approach, but which also aims to defend against long-range intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2020.

Russia has been invited to participate, and at his press conference Saturday after talks between NATO leaders and President Dmitry Medvedev, Obama suggested that the invitation had been accepted.

“Perhaps most significantly, we [Russia and NATO] agreed to cooperate on missile defense, which turns a source of past tension into a source of potential cooperation against a shared threat,” he said.

However, Medvedev in his own remarks to reporters appeared more cautious.

Although he confirmed that “we will be working in all areas, including European missile defense,” he also said that any Russian participation would need to be based on “a full-fledged exchange of information, or we won’t take part at all.”

Medvedev also noted uncertainties among NATO members about the costs and viability of the proposed shield, saying “it is quite evident that the Europeans themselves don’t have a complete understanding how it will look, how much it will cost.”

Moscow’s reservations were evident earlier when its ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, spoke about deep differences between Russia and the U.S. over the proposals.

He told the Izvestia newspaper that in talks last week with U.S. officials Russia had tried to convince the Americans that the system, the zones of deployment, and the speed and number of interceptor missiles should be limited.

Russia still believed the scale of the plan was disproportionate to the level of threat.

“It is like killing a fly on the head of your comrade with a sledgehammer,” said Rogozin, a leading nationalist politician before being appointed to the NATO position by then President Vladimir Putin in 2008.

In their briefing in Lisbon, Daalder and Rhodes both highlighted Obama’s success in getting NATO to agree to joint missile defense and to invite Russia to cooperate.

“Since the president rolled out his phased adaptive approach, we’ve been working this really hard with our allies, and I think we saw a lot of that work bear fruit today,” said Rhodes.

“Previous administrations have tried to get a European missile defense system.  They haven’t succeeded,” said Daalder. “This administration decided that it needed to put in place a defense of Europe and the United States and do it together with our allies.”

Daalder also highlighted the invitation to Moscow, saying that “in contrast to the narrative one has heard that somehow missile defense was a problem in U.S.-Russian or indeed NATO-Russian relationships, missile defense is now a means to foster greater cooperation with Russia.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow