At Turkey’s Insistence, NATO Will Not Name Iran As a Missile Threat

November 16, 2010 - 5:46 AM

missile defense

In a successful test of U.S. missile defense capabilities, a ground-based interceptor missile lifts off from Vandenberg AFB in California on December 5, 2008, en route to intercept and destroy a target missile launched in Alaska several minutes earlier. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

(Editor's note: Adds comment from NATO official)

(CNSNews.com) – Ahead of a key summit this week, NATO’s secretary-general has confirmed that the alliance will not identify Iran as a threat requiring the deployment of a NATO-wide missile defense umbrella in Europe.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s comment indicates that Turkey, a NATO member, will get its way on the matter. Turkey’s Islamist-leaning government has deepening political and economic ties with Tehran, and it has insisted that Iran not be singled out in NATO documents.

NATO decisions require consensus, and Turkey’s unhappiness about naming Iran as a threat risked causing political difficulties ahead of the summit in Lisbon. At the summit, NATO will unveil a new “Strategic Concept” for the transatlantic alliance to replace one formulated in 1999.

As part of the Strategic Concept, NATO leaders are expected to agree that a core mission should be defending the alliance’s territory against the threat of ballistic missiles, paving the way for U.S. missile defense facilities to be deployed in Europe in the coming years.

That threat has long been seen – by Washington and European allies – as emanating from Iran, which possesses well-tested short- and medium-range missile arsenals. Tehran twice last year test-fired its most advanced missile, the solid-fueled two-stage Sejil-2, which boasts a range of around 1,200 miles, potentially threatening an area incorporating Israel, the Gulf states, Turkey, parts of Central Asia and southeastern Europe.

Turkish foreign ministry officials told media organizations last month that neither Iran nor Syria should be cited as threats in official NATO documents relating to the missile shield, because doing so would cause problems between Turkey and those neighbors.

Turkey President Gul

Turkish President Abdullah Gul addresses a summit on the Millennium Development Goals at United Nations headquarters on Monday, Sept. 20, 2010. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)

Turkish President Abdullah Gul reiterated that stance this week, telling the BBC’s Turkish service that Turkey would “definitely not accept” the mentioning of one country, Iran.

Two weeks ago, Turkish media reported that the government in Ankara had revised a secret threat assessment document, removing Iran, Russia and several other countries from the list of potential security threats, and adding Israel.

Potential Article 5 threat

The Strategic Concept to be adopted in Lisbon on Friday and Saturday is based on a report drafted by an expert panel led by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The report warned that Iran’s suspect nuclear activity and ballistic missile stockpile “could create a major Article 5 threat to the Alliance in this decade.” (Article 5 of NATO’s Charter states that an attack on any member is considered an attack on all.)

“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 said.

But in Brussels on Monday, Rasmussen said in reply to a question about Iran that it was not necessary to name any country as posing a threat.

“The fact is that more than 30 countries have – or are aspiring to get – missile technologies with a range sufficient to hit targets in the Euro-Atlantic area. And we want to protect ourselves against any such threats,” he told reporters.

“So there is no reason to name specific countries because there are already a lot of them.”

The Obama administration also appears to be backing away from mentioning Iran in the context of the missile defense threat.

U.S. envoy to NATO Ivo Daalder – a foreign policy advisor to the 2008 Obama-for-president campaign – presented “The case for NATO missile defense” in a New York Times op-ed published Monday, referring numerous times to the missile “threat” and “danger” but not identifying its source by name.

NATO-Rasmussen

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen addresses a press conference in Brussels on Monday, November 16, 2010, ahead of Friday’s key NATO summit in Lisbon. (Photo: NATO)

Until recently, Rasmussen appeared content to ascribe the principal threat to Iran.

“It is a fact and based on public information from Iran herself that Iran has at her disposal missile technology with a range which make it possible for them to hit targets in Europe if they so wish,” he told a Brussels press conference on June 10.

“We face a common threat,” he told reporters in Washington on September 7. “In the European neighborhood, we have at least one country, Iran, with ambitions when it comes to missile technology.”

During a speech in Rome on Sept. 17, Rasmussen said that “Iran … already has missiles that can hit NATO territory and Russia too, which is expanding their range, and which is in violation of its international obligations with regards to its nuclear program as well.”

But the references to Iran vanished in recent weeks, following Turkey’s vocal objections.

During a speech in Brussels on Oct. 8, Rasmussen spoke at length about missile defense without mentioning Iran once.

Similarly, Rasmussen raised missile defense but made no reference to Iran during a monthly press briefing at NATO headquarters on Oct. 11; in an Oct. 12 New York Times op-ed; at a press conference in Brussels on Oct. 14; and at a press conference in New York on Sept. 22.

‘More than 30 countries’

On several of those occasions, Rasmussen reiterated that “30 countries” or more posed a potential threat to NATO territory. The assertion also appears on a document recently posted on the NATO Web site, which devotes almost 2,000 words to the need for NATO missile defense – but does not mention Iran.

At a press conference last Wednesday, NATO spokesman James Appathurai was asked about the evident reluctance to name Iran.

“There are at least 30 countries, more than 30 countries, acquiring, that have or are acquiring ballistic missile capability,” he replied. “So this is not just about one country. It’s about a growing and, in essence, generic potential threat to our territory.”

Again without naming Iran, Appathurai said NATO allies “are not ignoring specific countries, because they exist, but as I say it’s 30-plus countries, and I think allies want to look at it in that sense.”

NATO’s press office would not provide a list of the countries.

“It is clear that the threat is real, therefore we don’t see a need to list them all,” a NATO official said Tuesday. “Obviously there are classified NATO reports with more detailed information but these are not open to the public.”

The Claremont Institute’s missile threat database lists only 19 countries that possess ballistic missiles. Excluding NATO members and allies, countries too far away to pose a threat (Taiwan, South Korea), and countries whose missile programs are obsolete (Iraq, Serbia), the number drops to nine – China, Egypt, India, Iran, Libya, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia and Syria.

Data compiled by the Center for American Progress (CAP) comes a little closer to the “more than 30” cited by NATO, listing 28 countries with ballistic missile capabilities.

But 17 of them are countries possessing Scud or similar weapons with a maximum range of 300 kilometers (186 miles). Eliminating NATO members or aspiring members and countries that are too distant to pose a potential threat to NATO territory reduces those 17 to just six – Armenia, Belarus, Egypt, Iraq, Libya and Syria.

The other 11 countries cited by CAP are those with medium- and long-range missiles capabilities. Once NATO members (the U.S., Britain and France) are discounted, the number drops to eight – Russia, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Saudi Arabia, North Korea and Iran.