The Cable

U.S.: Iran Deal Doesn’t Change Need for Missile Defense Shield in Europe

A top U.S. military officer said Tuesday that an emerging nuclear deal with Iran will not affect U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, despite strong objections from Moscow.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29:  Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, speaks onstage at the 2014 Concordia Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 29, 2014 in New York City.  (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 29: Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James A. Winnefeld, speaks onstage at the 2014 Concordia Summit - Day 1 at Grand Hyatt New York on September 29, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Concordia Summit)

A top U.S. military officer said Tuesday that an emerging nuclear deal with Iran will not affect U.S. plans to build a missile defense shield in Europe, despite strong objections from Moscow.

Russia “shouldn’t worry about this,” said Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “They should actually be encouraged that we are helping our allies there potentially defending us against Iran.”

The U.S. has long justified the missile interceptor bases in Romania and Poland as a necessary safeguard against Iran. Now that world powers and Tehran near a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program, Russia has repeatedly demanded that Washington scrap plans for the defense shield that Moscow sees as a threat to its own security.

Moscow has been increasing pressure on European countries that have offered to host installations for the defense shield, and last month warned Poland and Romania against participating in the U.S.-led program.

“Non-nuclear powers where missile-defense installations are being installed have become the objects of priority response,” Gen. Valery Gerasimov said at a conference last month in Moscow, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Russian Defense Minister Sergie Shoigu also said U.S. claims that a defense shield is designed to deter Tehran were a lie. “Today it is clear that the missile threat from Tehran that the U.S. and other countries of the alliance invented was a bluff,” he said at the same conference.

Winnefeld, speaking Tuesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, offered a lengthy rebuttal.

First, he said the defense shield could technically not pose a threat to Russia, given the sophisticated ballistic missile capabilities of Moscow’s military. “A reasonably powerful country like Russia could overwhelm that missile defense system fairly quickly,” he said.

Second, he noted that even if international negotiators reach a nuclear deal, Iran could break the agreement at any time — a risk the U.S. needs to prepare for, given the amount of time it takes to develop a missile defense shield. “A ballistic missile defense system isn’t something that you turn on overnight,” he said.

He also emphasized that the Iran negotiations do not address the country’s ballistic missile capabilities, which means the country could still pose a conventional military threat even if it adheres to a final deal.  “I think there’s every reason for us to continue what we’re doing,” he said.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Greg Thielmann, a missile defense expert at the Arms Control Association, said Winnefeld is correct that the U.S.-led defense shield, as currently planned, would not hobble Russia’s missile capabilities — which Moscow sees as an important way to deter adversaries.

However, Thielmann questioned Winnefeld’s claim that a missile defense shield is a worthwhile investment, even if Iran swears off its nuclear ambitions. He said the cost-benefit analysis to countering a conventional ballistic missile does not add up.

“There’s no way in hell it makes any sense to protect France from a ballistic missile with a conventional warhead in this scenario,” Thielmann said. “It’s a hugely disproportionate expenditure of money without a nuclear warhead.”

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