Determination - to a Point

Whoever intends to adopt defensive measures against Iranian nuclear missiles apparently believes the regime in Tehran will have them.

The Americans have invested some $100 billion in defense systems against ballistic missiles over the past two decades; at present, however, they do not have a single operational system. The issue is a real obsession for the Bush administration. Bush is promoting the matter, and every year promises huge budgets for the development of defense systems, the strategic logic for which is flawed and even harmful. This year, the U.S. administration will allocate no less than $8.8 billion for the development of defense systems.

When the Cold War ended, the Soviet threat disappeared, and concerns arose regarding possible pressure to cancel the costly development programs, the North Korean ballistic threat was invented. The threat is exaggerated, because North Korea does not have missiles that can reach the United States. And even if North Korea were to acquire or develop such missiles, the likelihood of it deciding to attack the United States with nuclear missiles - knowing that a U.S. response would see North Korea wiped off the map - is zero. Bush also decided to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which was the key to preserving strategic stability during the Cold War period.

Last week, the Bush administration took another negative step. It proposed to European countries and the Persian Gulf states that they deploy U.S. defense systems against Iranian ballistic nuclear missiles. Bush and his senior officials are exploiting the concern regarding Iran's nuclear arms development in order to promote the failed and outrageously expensive missile defense system projects of the U.S.

The problem is not only the attempt to persuade friendly countries to equip themselves with arms whose effectiveness is doubted, but also the messages that the U.S. administration is conveying. If indeed there is any logic behind the need for the deployment of defense systems in Europe and the Persian Gulf, this means that the U.S. administration has come to terms with the fact that Iran will successfully complete the development of its nuclear weapons. This is a message that contradicts the message that Bush has been trying to convey over the past months, including during Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's visit to Washington last week.

Bush has promised that the United States will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons, and has made it clear that he will stop at nothing and use all the means and tools at his disposal to prevent it from doing so. If this is the case, why invest huge sums in the deployment of defense systems against a threat that he promises will not materialize? Either Bush is not determined to prevent Iran from developing nuclear arms, or he is not convinced of his ability to do so.

And if Iran does end up with nuclear missiles, the deployment of defense systems in European states that are members of NATO would be tantamount to saying to Iran that America and its allies in Europe do not have faith in the deterrence value of the U.S.'s large nuclear stockpiles. In other words, the country that for four decades successfully deterred the Soviets, who were in possession of tens of thousands of ballistic missiles, is not convinced of its ability to deter a state that will have just a small number of intercontinental missiles - if any.

A second negative and harmful message was sent out toward Russia. The choice of Poland and the Czech Republic - former members of the Warsaw Pact - as the first countries in which defense systems will be deployed smacks of blatant defiance by Bush toward Russia, and constitutes a display of contempt for a historical rival. Furthermore, as far as the Russians perceive things, the United States has no intention of preparing only for the Iranian missiles, but of deploying - in an underhanded and disingenuous manner - defense systems to counter the Russian missiles, and of expanding its military presence in East European states. As far as the Russian regime is concerned, this is a move that increases the level of tension between the two countries, and stirs up the winds of the Cold War.

"The deployment of anti-missile defense systems in Poland would have a negative impact on the whole Euro-Atlantic security system," clarified Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who added that the mooted site for the deployment of the systems was "dubious, to put it mildly."

The Russians are not satisfied with voicing a protest, and have adopted a threatening tone. "Go ahead and build that shield [against missiles]," said Russian Chief of Staff General Yury Baluyevsky in an interview with a newspaper published in Warsaw. "You have to think, though, what will fall on your heads afterward. I don't foresee a nuclear conflict between Russia and the West. We do not have such plans; but it must be understood that countries that are part of such a shield increase their risk."

And in a message to the U.S. administration via the Russian news agency Interfax, the Russian chief of staff returned to the Cold War rhetoric, commenting: "We will find and have virtually found appropriate and - I would like to emphasize this - asymmetric solutions, which give us grounds to say that our intercontinental ballistic missiles and their warheads will successfully penetrate both existing and nascent missile defense systems that are being developed today and will be developed tomorrow and in the more distant future."

The policymakers in Jerusalem would do well to monitor the messages from Washington. Whoever intends to adopt defensive measures against Iranian nuclear missiles apparently believes that the regime in Tehran will have them. And whoever returned from the White House with the sense that the U.S. president is determined to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program would be well advised to reconsider what he has promised.