Russia Wants to Use Iran Nuclear Deal to Shut Down Missile Defense Shield

December 6, 2013 - 5:31 AM


Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Paris last May. (AP Photo/Jim Young, Pool)

( – The United States and other NATO members have shot down suggestions by Russia that the nuclear deal struck with Iran last month removes the alliance’s declared justification for a missile defense shield in Europe.

Designed to defend European allies and U.S. forces from the threat of ballistic missile attack from Iran, the defense system is being rolled out in phases, and by 2018 a combination of ship-borne and land-based interceptors in Romania and Poland should provide a protective shield over the whole of Europe.

Russia says it will have the effect of weakening its nuclear deterrent, despite the Pentagon’s repeated insistence that it neither has that aim nor it would be technically capable of undermining the effectiveness of Russia’s strategic forces.

Along with NATO’s eastward expansion, the missile defense issue has plagued relations between Russia and the transatlantic alliance for years, with Russia periodically threatening to respond by deploying ballistic missiles in its westernmost enclave, Kaliningrad, aimed at central Europe.

Less than 24 hours after the “first step” nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and six world powers in Geneva last month, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov broached the issue, linking the purported lessening of an Iranian nuclear threat to the missile defense program.

“If the Iran deal is put into practice, the stated reason for the construction of the defense shield will no longer apply,” he told reporters in Rome on November 25.

Lavrov brought up the subject again in Brussels this week, both at a bilateral meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry and during a NATO-Russia Council gathering, where foreign ministers tackled issues ranging from Syria to the future of Afghanistan, where the NATO-led military mission is due to end next December.

At a press conference after meeting with the NATO minsters, Lavrov said a fully-implemented nuclear deal with Iran would remove the need for the missile defense umbrella.

“If the agreement that has been reached is fully realized, if the Iranian nuclear problem is fully resolved, and if the Iranian nuclear program is placed under the complete and tight control of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the reasons that are now given for the creation of the European segment of the missile defense system will become invalid,” he said.

But a senior State Department official, briefing on background afterwards, said that Kerry and the other allies had “strongly disputed” the contention “that in the context of increasing progress with Iran, missile defense is no longer needed.”

At the bilateral meeting with Lavrov, the official added, Kerry “went over again the fact it is not only about Iran’s nuclear program, it’s also about its ballistic missile program, which allows it to deliver other forms of WMD [weapons of mass destruction] as well, and that is concerning and requiring of strong missile defense protections.”

The Nov. 24 agreement offers Tehran limited sanctions relief in exchange for steps including limiting the level of uranium enrichment and not increasing the number of operating centrifuges. During a six-month first phase the parties will try to reach a comprehensive deal, although that period may be extended if both sides agree.

The White House has confirmed that the comprehensive agreement could allow Iran to keep “a strictly limited enrichment program.”

Whatever the merits of the agreement, it does not touch on Iran’s ballistic missile program, which has been expanding in scope and sophistication for years, in collaboration with North Korea.

As long ago as 1998 Iran successfully tested its liquid-fueled Shahab-3 missile, whose range threatens Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf, and in 2010 it test-fired a solid-fueled, two-stage Sejil-2, which boasts a range of around 1,200 miles. Depending on the location in Iran of a launch site, a missile with that range could potentially threaten territory stretching to Turkey and south-eastern Europe.

In February 2009 Iran 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. With that achievement, the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency commented, “Iran demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles].”

In a mid-2013 report on the ballistic missile threat, the  U.S. National Air and Space Intelligence Center said that Iran “continues to attempt to increase the range, lethality, and accuracy of its ballistic missile force.”

Tehran is “developing the technical capability to produce an ICBM,” it said and reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”

Other WMDs?

Aside from the potential nuclear threat Iran is suspected of exploring other non-conventional weapons, despite having formally denounced the development and use of chemical and biological weapons – and indeed having been the victim of an Iraqi chemical weapons attack during the Iran-Iraq war.

In an assessment to Congress in 2009, the Defense Intelligence Agency said it believed that “Iran’s biological warfare (BW) efforts may have evolved beyond agent research and development, and we believe Iran likely has the capability to produce small quantities of BW agents but may only have a limited ability to weaponize them.”

“Iran continues to engage in dual-use research and seek biotechnical materials, equipment and expertise, which have legitimate uses but could also enable ongoing BW efforts,” it continued. “We assess that Iran maintains dual-use facilities intended to produce chemical warfare agents in times of need and conducts research that could have offensive applications.”

In a more recent report, in early 2012, the Director of National Intelligence said, “Tehran continues to seek dual-use technologies that could advance its capability to produce CW agents. We judge that Iran is capable of weaponizing CW agents in a variety of delivery systems.

“Iran probably has the capability to produce some biological warfare (BW) agents for offensive purposes, if it made the decision to do so,” it said. “We assess that Iran has previously conducted offensive BW agent research and development. Iran continues to expand its biotechnology infrastructure and seek dual-use technologies that could be used for BW.”