- By Laura RozenLaura Rozen writes The Cable daily at ForeignPolicy.com.
Amid reports that U.S. President Barack Obama last month offered in a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to reconsider plans for U.S. missile defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic in exchange for Russia withholding assistance to Iran’s long range missile program, sources tell The Cable that the U.S. missile defense program is currently under review.
Among those involved in the U.S. missile defense policy review is Barry Pavel, the NSC senior director on defense who was brought over in the fall from the Defense Department, a source said. Obama administration officials sought to downplay the review.
"What is being reviewed relates to questions of the effectiveness of the system, the cost, which will impact its deployability going forward," said an NSC official. "It’s not a big policy review. There are elements that need to be examined, for good governance."
Whereas the Obama administration has publicly discussed that reviews of U.S. policy regarding Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran are underway, review of U.S. missile defense policy may be more sensitive given that the issue is subject to international negotations at various levels, as Obama’s letter to Moscow suggests.
Obama spoke of the letter sent to Moscow in an Oval Office question and answer session following his meeting with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown Tuesday. Obama said that the U.S. missile defense program in Eastern Europe is directed not towards Russia, but Iran.
“What we had was a very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism,” Obama said. “And what I said in the letter was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran’s commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for a missile defense system.”
The administration "has framed this up exactly the right way,” said a senior U.S. official. “Missile defense is a means to deal with the growing Iranian threat. If that threat is dealt with, obviously the rationale for missile defense” is reduced. “If the threat is attenuated, there’s added pressure to develop it.”
Arms control advocates such as Joseph Cirincione, the president of the Ploughshares Fund, who contributed advice to the Obama campaign on nonproliferation issues, said the U.S. missile defense program is in great need of review. “On the issues of cost, threat, and effectiveness: this system has not been reliably tested and we have no idea if it will work in the real world,” Cirincione said. “On the threat, the review needs to ask: What is the actual ballistic missile threat that missile defense is needed to counter, what is the future threat, and when will it appear?"
“Thirdly on cost: the [proposed] European system alone costs $14 billion,” Cirincione continued, citing a Congressional Budget Office study released last month. “The overall missile defense program is running at $13 billion a year. Obama all during the campaign said that he’s in favor of missile defense as long as it can be operationally tested, affordable and addresses a real threat.”
Given the shortcomings of the missile defense program on those terms, Cirincione believes the Obama administration is mistaken to try to trade an offer to scrap or delay it in exchange for getting greater cooperation from Moscow on the Iran issue.
Other officials more supportive of the program said that delay in deploying the installations in Eastern Europe was warranted if it bolstered international diplomatic will against the potential Iranian threat that the missile defenses are meant to address.
“We have to have defenses there by the time of the threat,” a senior U.S. official said. “We can wait some time to do this, provided we do not wait too long, to give diplomacy a chance."
White House officials confirmed news reports that the Obama letter was delivered on a visit to Moscow last month by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William J. Burns.
Administration officials will continue discussions of issues it raised in upcoming face-to-face meetings with Russian leaders.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to meet her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Switzerland on Friday, where the Iran issue, as well as upcoming arms control treaty talks, are expected to top the agenda. Next month, Obama is expected to meet Medvedev in London, where they will both be for the G20 summit.