“It was the Iranian nuclear program in particular that at one time served as the main argument for deploying the missile defense system,” Putin said during an annual address to both houses of the Russian parliament.
“Now what’s happening? The Iranian nuclear program is going away, but the missile defense system stays – and not only stays but continues to be developed.”
The U.S. says the system is designed to defend European allies and U.S. forces from the threat of ballistic missile attack from Iran and has neither the aim nor the capacity to weaken Russia’s nuclear deterrent. Moscow, which has opposed the plan and its Bush-era precursor for more than a decade, disagrees – strongly.
“We are perfectly aware that missile defense systems are defensive only in name,” Putin told the lawmakers. “In fact, this is a significant component of a strategic offensive potential.”
Commenting on the speech afterwards senior Russian lawmaker Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the State Duma foreign affairs committee, told the pro-Kremlin RT news channel that the U.S. argument that a shield is needed to defend Europe from Iran is “just a fake.”
“The real goal is to create a new stage of American superiority in Europe, to try to neutralize, at least partially, Russian nuclear potential,” he said.
Notwithstanding Putin’s claim that “the Iranian nuclear program is going away,” the first-step deal struck by six powers and Tehran Iran on Nov. 24 agreement is a limited one, and the parameters and success of a hoped-for comprehensive agreement in the future remain far from certain.
Also, despite the fact that five out of the six U.N. Security Council resolutions on the Iran nuclear issue adopted between 2006 and 2010 also cited the ballistic missile threat, the interim agreement does not address it in any way.
Even if a comprehensive nuclear deal were able to finally and irreversibly remove the nuclear weapons threat, Iran could threaten the Middle East or parts of Europe with missiles tipped with conventional warheads, or potentially even chemical or biological ones.
After Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov tried to link the Iran nuclear deal with the missile defense program during a NATO-Russia Council meeting in Brussels last week a senior U.S. State Department official told reporters that Secretary of State John Kerry had shot down the argument “that in the context of increasing progress with Iran, missile defense is no longer needed.”
The official said Kerry had reiterated to Lavrov that “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 unfolding missile defense program is a combination of ship-borne and land-based interceptors, including facilities planned for Romania and Poland, which together aim to provide protection for all of Europe by 2018.
The West has been watching Tehran’s increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile development and testing with concern for years. After the Iranians in early 2009 used a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket to shoot a research satellite into orbit the U.S. Missile Defense Agency noted that the achievement had “demonstrated technologies that are directly applicable to the development of ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles].”
The carrier rocket used in that launch was believed to be based on Iran’s Shahab variants of short-, medium- and long-range missiles.
(When North Korea placed a satellite in orbit last December, the U.S. similarly said the accomplishment amounted to a successful demonstration of Pyongyang’s ICBM capability. Iran and North Korea have collaborated in the field of missile development for decades.)
Iran’s first successful satellite launch in 2009 was followed by another in 2011.
Iran “continues to attempt to increase the range, lethality, and accuracy of its ballistic missile force,” the National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in a report earlier this year. It reaffirmed the intelligence community’s assessment that “Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”
Iran on Tuesday announced plans to launch another rocket into space next week, as part of what it says in a program aimed at achieving manned spaceflight by 2020, and a moon landing by 2025.