The Monitor's View

Obama's deft move on anti-Iran defense missiles

He holds a bolder card just before talks with Tehran about its nuclear program around the corner.

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The Obama administration's new anti-Iran missile plan is not so much a "reversal" of the Bush plan, as a refinement of it.

And a well-timed one for the coming round of diplomacy with Iran.

On Oct. 1, the US will join China, Russia, France, Britain, and Germany for talks with Iran, presumably on its nuclear weapons program. The world has been at a stalemate in forcing Iran to comply with international nuclear nonproliferation standards. Neither sanctions nor a new US openness to deal with Tehran has yet to yield results.

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But today's announcement that the US will soon have a missile defense system ready to intercept possible Iranian short- and medium-range nuclear missiles should significantly add to the pressure on Iran. Perhaps, too, Russia may reverse itself and agree to tougher sanctions if Iran still doesn't comply.

Why would Russia do that? Because the new missile defense strategy scraps planned military installations in Poland and the Czech Republic that had needlessly infuriated Russia. Moscow imagined these installations to be a threat to its security and an unwelcome interference in its neighborhood. The administration is also open to Russia taking part in a missile shield.

Some critics worry that Washington is "appeasing" Russia, encouraging more bullying from this bear. But the United States isn't abandoning its European friends under pressure from Russia. Washington still wants to involve Eastern Europe – specifically the Poles and Czechs – in an antimissile shield directed at Iran. It just wants to do it later, and with more up-to-date equipment.

The Bush plan had called for an antimissile shield in those two countries that was aimed at detecting and knocking out long-range Iranian nuclear missiles that might threaten the US and Europe. The installations were expected to be ready in 2017 or 2018.

As Defense Secretary Robert Gates explained today, however, intelligence shows that Tehran is developing short- and medium-range missiles much more rapidly than the long-range missiles for which the Eastern European shield was intended. At the same time, technological advances in the US military's ability to shoot down short- and medium-range missiles has vastly improved.

That argues for the more flexible, two-phased approach of the Pentagon: sea-borne interceptors first, land-based by around 2015, all the while continuing to work on the trickier technology of intercepting long-range nuclear missiles.

The administration describes its plan as more flexible, more timely, and potentially involving more allies. Indeed, other NATO countries such as Turkey have been mentioned as possible participants. And it should reassure Israel to have a few Aegis cruisers at the ready.

The plan is deft. It adjusts to a changing threat. It includes America's allies. It encourages assistance from Russia. And it ratchets up the pressure on Iran.

Time to test it out.

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