With American officials working to close a deal on a missile defense system in Europe, the head of the U.S. program warned Thursday that Iran was within two or three years of producing a missile that could reach most European capitals.
"They're already flying missiles that exceed what they would need in a fight with Israel. Why? Why do they continue this progression in terms of range of missiles? It's something we need to think about," Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering III, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told a conference here on missile defense.
The message was aimed at staving off skepticism in Europe and clinching a deal for radar and interceptor sites in the Czech Republic and Poland. It underscored increasing concern among defense experts that while attention has focused on nuclear proliferation, nations such as China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and India have made significant strides in developing missiles that can reach far beyond their immediate neighbors.
"Our short-range defenses could protect Rome and Athens," Obering said, but he warned that London, Paris and Brussels would remain vulnerable "against an Iranian [intermediate-range missile] threat."
Many in Europe have expressed doubts that Iran would target European cities. But Obering said it was possible to imagine as little as seven years from now a nuclear-armed Iran shutting off oil shipments in the Persian Gulf, or Al Qaeda militants seizing freighters off Europe and arming them with nuclear-tipped Scud missiles "to punish the West for invasion of Muslim holy lands."
The timing of the warning was hardly coincidental, as Bush administration officials this week were attempting through talks in Washington to clear the last hurdles for agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic on the U.S.-run system of interceptor missiles and radar in Europe.
The Czech Foreign Ministry official in charge of security policy, Veronika Kuchynova Smigolova, predicted that the deal could be signed as early as next month's NATO summit in Bucharest, the Romanian capital, and ratified by the Czech Parliament by summer.
But Russia remains vigorously opposed to what it sees as a permanent new U.S. military infrastructure near its borders in Central Europe, and there are concerns on the continent about further alienating Iran and Russia. Some critics have questioned the wisdom of allowing the U.S., rather than the European Union or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, to take the lead in defending Europe against such missiles.
Malcolm Chalmers, a onetime foreign policy advisor to former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said the decision to locate the system in former Warsaw Pact nations may have sparked opposition in Moscow that otherwise "would be much less vociferous."
"Did we only deploy it there because that's the only place available?" said Chalmers, who is now a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute, which sponsored Thursday's conference.
Some Europeans have questioned whether Iran represents a genuine threat to Europe, and have accused the Bush administration of undermining existing arms control agreements by proceeding unilaterally on missile defense.
"This is firstly and foremostly an American choice and should be taken as such," said Yves Boyer, deputy director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. "It has not been requested by any European state and . . . it does not answer the critical need for Europeans to process their own assessment of strategic capabilities."
Jane Sharp, senior research fellow in defense studies at King's College London, said the Bush administration had cost the West a once-cooperative relationship with Russia.
"Even if ballistic missile defense did look credible to a potential adversary, they're still destabilizing, because the logical response for any adversary for a credible defense is to acquire more offensive capability -- this is what the Russians are telling us every day," she said.
But reflecting the wariness of Russia long present among the European Union's newest members -- Poland has made it clear that it fears attack from Russia much more than from Iran -- Smigolova said the proposed defense program would restore equality of security on both sides of the Atlantic.
"Russia knows very well that one radar and 10 interceptors won't change the strategic balance and doesn't present any real military problem for them," she said. "But for them, a U.S. presence in Central Europe is the final confirmation of the loss of their influence over this part of Europe."
Smigolova said the Czech government was "well aware" of widespread public opposition to the system in that country and in Europe, but would be pushing to ratify the agreement after remaining concerns over environmental protections were worked out.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek met Wednesday at the White House with President Bush but withheld his approval for the system, citing remaining differences on environmental standards for the radar equipment. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk is scheduled to visit Bush on March 10.
U.S. negotiators are due in Poland today to discuss modernizing that country's military, a key Polish request in the missile defense talks.
Bush said in a news conference Thursday that he still hoped to persuade the Russian government to drop its opposition. "I believe it's in our interests to try to figure out a way for the Russians to understand the system is not aimed at them, but aimed at the real threats of the 21st century," Bush said.
U.S. officials and many European security experts have said the rate at which new nations are obtaining the capability to build longer-range missiles, with increasingly sophisticated maneuvering ability, is greatly expanding.
Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Janet Stobart in London contributed to this report.