(CNSNews.com) – The Obama administration is on the verge of abandoning proposals to build a missile defense shield in Europe which caused a major rift between the U.S. and Russia, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
The move will resonate in Poland and the Czech Republic, where governments weathered domestic unease and Russian fury by signing agreements with the Bush administration in 2008 to host elements of the system – ten missile interceptors and a radar tracking station respectively.
Supporters of the plans in the two former Warsaw Pact states saw it as a way to strengthen ties with Washington while countering Moscow’s regional influence, viewed as increasingly threatening after last summer’s Russian invasion of Georgia.
The Associated Press cited administration officials as saying U.S. officials were expected to give briefings to politicians in the two NATO member states on Thursday. It also said Defense Secretary Robert Gates had scheduled a press conference Thursday, reportedly on the missile defense issue.
The ballistic missile defense (BMD) umbrella was aimed at protecting the U.S. and its allies against potential aggression from Iran, which is pursuing both a long-range missile capability and pushing ahead with a nuclear program that the West suspects is a cover to develop nuclear weapons. But the Kremlin characterized the BMD plan as a threat to Russian security and threatened retaliatory steps.
The Obama administration, which pledged to “reset” its relationship with Moscow, launched a review of the proposals earlier this year, focusing on its cost and operational effectiveness. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton hinted at the possibility that it may be shelved, depending on Iran’s future behavior.
President Obama confirmed in March that a letter he had written to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev explained that “obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, that reduces the pressure for, or the need for, a missile defense system.”
The Wall Street Journal report cited current and former U.S. officials as saying the decision to shelve the BMD plan would be based “on a determination that Iran’s long-range missile program has not progressed as rapidly as previously estimated, reducing the threat to the continental U.S. and major European capitals.”
Iran – with North Korean assistance, according to the CIA – has for years been developing and testing liquid-fueled Shahab missile variants with ranges of 1,000 miles and more.
Last February it became just the 10th country with the proven capability to put a satellite into space, using a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket, the Safir-2, to do so. Experts said the accomplishment was further evidence of Iran’s increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile capability.
In May, Tehran test-fired a solid-fueled, two-stage Sejil-2 missile with a range of around 1,200 miles, making it capable of reaching parts of south-eastern and eastern Europe.
Political analyst and Heritage Foundation scholar Nile Gardiner wrote on the Daily Telegraph Web site last month that if the Obama administration dropped the missile defense plans, “it would represent an appalling surrender to Russian demands, and the shameful of appeasement of an increasingly aggressive regime that is openly flexing its muscle in an effort to intimidate ex-members of the Warsaw Pact.”
“Such a move would significantly weaken America’s ability to combat the growing threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program, and would hand a major propaganda victory to the Russians,” he said.