White House National Security Adviser James L. Jones says President Obama’s decision to abandon a long-range missile defense site in Eastern Europe was driven by U.S. intelligence concerns that Iran is further along than previously thought in developing medium-range missiles that could strike Western Europe and the Middle East with nuclear warheads.
“We think they are heading toward weaponiz[ing] these missiles, which obviously we want to dissuade them from doing,” the retired four-star Marine general told The Washington Times, explaining why U.S. officials dramatically shifted from years of focus on guarding against longer-range intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).
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Gen. Jones also acknowledged that the policy shift announced on Thursday will pay “an ancillary benefit” to U.S. efforts to improve relations with Moscow, taking issue with a statement by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs that the change was “not about Russia.”
“The fact is, there is clearly a relationship here in all of these issues,” he said. “We are trying to reset the relationship with Russia, based on one of mutual respect and mutual interest.”
In a wide-ranging interview Friday afternoon in his West Wing office, Gen. Jones said the government’s top national security leaders met about 50 times since March before unanimously agreeing to scrap a 2006 Bush administration plan to put 10 long-range, ground-based interceptor missiles in Poland and a related radar tracking site in the Czech Republic. They are to be replaced by ship-based radar and interceptors better able to protect Europe from shorter-range missiles, he said.
The key driver, he said, was intelligence showing that Iran is stressing development of medium- and intermediate- range missiles that could reach the Middle East or Western Europe and is focusing less on ICBMs with ranges greater than 3,500 miles that might one day reach the United States.
“We concluded, the intelligence community concluded and recommended that the previous threat estimates about Iran’s capabilities, vis-a-vis an ICBM, were not as imminent as we thought, which is to say the capability is further out,” Gen. Jones said.
“The intermediate-range capability of Iranian technology is higher than we thought, which puts Europe at risk and many of our friends in the Gulf at risk,” he said.
The new intelligence included a “pattern of Iranian testing and our observation of the tests, and the obvious range improvements they were getting, coupled with what we think is a plan to weaponize, maybe with nuclear warheads,” he added.
Gen. Jones did not elaborate on the types of missiles, but said that “what we’re talking about is the family of missile testing that allows us to conclude that it is the intermediate threat that is closer than we thought.”
The Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center stated in its annual report released in April that Iran has an “extensive missile development program” that includes the Shahab-3 and extended-range versions, as well as a new solid-fuel missile with a range of 1,240 miles enough to hit targets throughout Europe and the Middle East.
The report said Iran could have an ICBM by 2015.
However, two administration officials said the new intelligence is outlined in a May 2009 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded that Iran would not have a long-range missile before 2020.
U.S. estimates of missile threats have been of mixed reliability. In 1998, an intelligence assessment gauged that no nation outside the established nuclear powers would have a long-range missile by 2015. Shortly after the assessment, in August 1998, North Korea test-fired its first intercontinental-range Taepodong missiles.