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A Curious Justification

12:30 AM, Sep 18, 2009 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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During a press briefing on Thursday, President Obama explained his administration's decision to cancel the deployment of land-based missile defense systems in Eastern Europe this way:

"…we have updated our intelligence assessment of Iran's missile programs, which emphasizes the threat posed by Iran's short and medium range missiles, which are capable of reaching Europe."

In his own press briefing, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates elaborated. He explained that the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) believes Iran's long-range missile capability has been "slower to develop" than predicted and, therefore, the threat is "not as immediate as previously thought."

Does this mean that the threat of Iran deploying long-range missiles sometime in the next five to ten years has gone away? No.

Instead, the administration has chosen to emphasize the threat of Iran's short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles over its continuing development of a long-range capability. It says that this determination is based on an "updated" intelligence assessment.

There at least four obvious observations to be made here.

First, there is nothing surprising about this development and it is certainly not about Iran's missile programs alone. Although President Obama and Secretary Gates claim that a new intelligence assessment of Iran's missile program led to the decision, it is in reality the fulfillment of a long-time policy goal. The Democrats have been pushing to capitulate to the Russians on this for years.

Moreover, you could see this coming in Secretary Gates's discussion of the defense budget in April. Gates announced that the budget for missile defense was to be decreased by $1.4 billion, additional ground-based interceptors in Alaska were to be canceled, and funds were being directed to the same short and medium-range defense systems (SM-3, Aegis) that Obama and Gates are now emphasizing.

The appointment of Ellen Tauscher as the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security in June was another good indication of what was to come. For years, Tauscher objected to the Bush administration's pursuit of a land-based missile defense system in Eastern Europe capable of countering the threat of long-range missiles. Tauscher has repeatedly drawn a distinction between Iran's existing short and medium-range missile capabilities, and its continued pursuit of a more long-range missile capability. In an interview with Der Spiegel in 2007, Tauscher explained the thinking behind a missile defense bill she had introduced:

"In the bill, what we have done is we have effectively said that we don't want construction to begin. We don't want site preparation to begin. We want engagement on a diplomatic level. So we will slow them down. The current threat is short- and mid-range, I am for protecting against that now. The long-range threat, analysts say, will come out of Iran in 2015."

The Obama administration's talking points now mirror Tauscher's from yesteryear with one noteworthy exception -- they now say that Iran probably won't have a long-range missile capability by 2015. Thus, Obama and Gates argue, there is no need to deploy the missile defense system today if Iran is progressing more slowly than previously expected. But this leads us to the next point. Second, in all likelihood, the IC doesn't have a firm grasp Iran's long-range missile development and basing key decisions on the IC's analyses of Iran's missile programs alone is a fool's errand.

The 2015 benchmark Tauscher mentioned has been widely cited, but it was always a rough benchmark. Looking back through the IC's analyses of Iran's ballistic missile capability it is clear that our spooks have never really predicted with any great deal of confidence what was to come. In 1995, for example, our analysts explained: "We have no evidence Iran wants to develop an ICBM." Whoops, that turned out not to be true. So, our analysts rewrote their assessments. But those estimates, including one in 1999 and another in 2001, are filled with so many caveats that it is impossible to believe our super-secret intelligence on Iran's missile programs is all that good.