For years, the U.S. government has insisted that a planned missile defense system in Europe served to protect America's allies against attacks from Iran. Now that the nuclear threat from Iran may be receding, Russia, which has always seen the system as a menace to its own security, has suggested scrapping the program. But the White House on Thursday said the missile shield, otherwise known as the European phased adaptive approach (EPAA), isn't going anywhere.
"Our plans regarding missile defense in Europe and our commitment to EPAA as the U.S. contribution to NATO missile defense remain unchanged," National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson told The Cable.
The idea of scaling back NATO's missile defense system was floated by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday following a meeting with Russian and NATO counterparts. "If the Iranian nuclear program is placed under the complete and tight control of the IAEA, the reasons that are now given for the creation of the European segment of the missile defense system will become invalid," said Lavrov.
Of course, placing Iran's nuclear program under tight U.N. control would require a comprehensive deal between Iran and six world powers, the so-called P5+1. Negotiators still have half a year to hammer out the details of a final agreement, which could implode at any moment -- a point the White House acknowledged. "There is still much work to be done as we negotiate the contours of a comprehensive solution over the next six months," said Lucas Magnuson.
Regardless, the decision to stay firm on the missile shield has sparked rare agreement between the White House and Republican hawks in Congress. "We absolutely must continue to put in place an effective and affordable missile defense system in Europe," Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) told The Cable.
That's not to say all Republicans are relieved. Moscow's prominent seat at the P5+1 has some U.S. lawmakers worried that Russia could engineer side-deals involving the NATO missile shield.
"I fear that missile defense and our alliances are just a negotiating chit to the administration when it comes to maintaining the fiction of a cooperative relationship with Putin," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), told The Cable.
The White House did not forecast whether it might change its mind about the defense shield in the future, but for some Republicans, the idea of scrapping the plans under any scenario is a non-starter. "Even if a deal were to work out in the next six months, Iran will retain the ability to enrich nuclear materials to assemble a nuclear weapon in the future, and would be able to field it in far less time than it would take for the U.S. and NATO to deploy a missile defense system in Europe," said Inhofe. "Furthermore, an effective missile defense system is an important hedge against other nations that might choose to follow in the dangerous footsteps of Iran and North Korea and has an important nonproliferation effect."
As it stands, the Obama administration has plans to build up NATO's defense shield in Europe with the deployment of shorter-and medium-range interceptors in three stages. (The administration plans to install medium-range interceptors in Redzikowo, Poland by 2018.) Back in March, the administration announced that it was abandoning the final phase of the defense shield, which would've included long-range missiles. As the Brookings Institution's Steven Pifer noted this week, the rollout of that announcement did not go so well with U.S. partners in Europe, leaving some "wondering whether Washington was making decisions regarding their security without taking account of their views."
"If developments with and in Iran create the possibility to reconsider the [defense shield] - still a big if - Washington would want to engage allies early in a consultative process," said Pifer.
While Pifer argues that European allies could be reassured with the right amount of consultation, it's hard to picture Republicans being similarly assuaged. "Any Russian attempts to leverage a deal with Iran to undermine the NATO Alliance and the establishment of a missile defense system would be reprehensible and we should not succumb to blackmail," said Inhofe.