WASHINGTON — President Obama scrapped his predecessor's plans for a European-based missile shield to defend against Iran, saying Thursday that new intelligence showed the Islamic Republic was proceeding more quickly to develop short- and medium-range missiles, requiring more "cost-effective" sea-based interceptors instead.
The move eliminates an expensive and controversial program to build a radar system in the Czech Republic and field large ground-based interceptors in Poland. The plan, originated under President George W. Bush, had been a major source of strained relations with Russia.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the decision to shift away from ground-based interceptors designed to destroy long-range missiles was based on a changing intelligence assessment of Iranian capabilities.
Iran is seen as still pursuing long-range missile capability, but on a slower track. And Gates said Tehran is making more rapid strides with short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, such as the Shahab-3.
"This poses an increased and more immediate threat to our forces on the European continent, as well as to our allies," he said.
But the decision to abandon one of the cornerstones of Bush-era foreign policy was seen by some observers as an attempt to recruit Russian support for international efforts to rein in Iran's nuclear ambitions.
Publicly, Obama administration officials denied that the decision was about Russia. But privately in the Pentagon, officials said they believed Moscow could be persuaded to use its leverage to pressure Tehran. "It's not about Russia. It's about Iran and how do you deal with Iran," a Defense official said. "Who can deal with Iran? Russia."
Obama said his decision was based on advice from Gates and senior military commanders who argued that Tehran had slowed development of the long-range rockets that prompted the Bush administration to plan an elaborate land-based system in Eastern Europe, far from the Middle East.
Under the first phase of the new plan, to be in place by 2011, the U.S. would use the Navy's Aegis missile defense system and Standard Missile-3 interceptors based primarily on ships in the Mediterranean, much closer to Iran, to combat shorter-range missiles. By 2018, the U.S. hopes to deploy a new version of the SM-3, which is less expensive than the Bush-era interceptors, on both land and sea.
Some outside experts said the policy shift could be attributed not simply to new intelligence about Iran, but to the fact that the intelligence was being seen through the eyes of a new administration more likely to accept it.
"Four years ago this kind of analysis would be completely unwelcome if it undermined the rationale for developing systems in Eastern Europe," said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "Now there's a whole group that feels happier about receiving this kind of intelligence. They want better relations with Russia."
Moscow had viewed the proposed system as a potential threat to its arsenal, a contention that U.S. officials repeatedly said was baseless. The Kremlin had objected to the omnidirectional radar that was to be built in the Czech Republic because it would have the ability to peer deep into Russian territory. The new system will employ an X-band radar, pointed away from Russia and toward Iran, according to U.S. Defense officials.
Although the Obama administration could use Russian cooperation in persuading Iran to roll back its nuclear program, it could hardly expect an immediate public commitment of assistance.
But White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs suggested that the time is coming for Russian officials to weigh in on issues such as Iran's nuclear program.
"I think the Russians are going to get a chance to decide how constructive they want to be on Iran in the next few weeks," Gibbs said.
The two nations and other Western powers will begin long-anticipated talks with Iran on Oct. 1.
Janusz Bugajski, director of the New European Democracies Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he hoped the Obama administration pushed privately for a Russian commitment to put pressure on Iran to curtail its missile or nuclear programs. But Bugajski said that Moscow's interests with Iran are not the same as Washington's.
"Russia has a different agenda with Iran," he said. "They aren't as fearful of Iranian weapons. And it is beneficial to them to have Iran act as a spoiler."
The Obama administration's decision was praised by some European leaders. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it offered an opening for the U.S. and Russia to work together to meet the threat from Iran.
But it met with a mixed reaction in Eastern Europe, where leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic had defied popular opposition to accept Bush administration requests to base components of the U.S. missile shield on their soil.