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US Stops Pretending Missile Shield Was Aimed at Iran

Not that anyone with half a brain cell was buying it - US will press ahead with the missile shield despite Iran deal proving it was always aimed at Russia

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The U.S. has announced that it will press ahead with its plan to station an anti-ballistic missile system in Poland notwithstanding the recent nuclear deal with Iran.

This is despite the fact that the deal with Iran robs the system of its announced rationale.

The U.S. has always insisted that the anti-ballistic missile system was intended to protect Europe from attack by nuclear tipped missiles launched from Iran. It has repeatedly denied that the system is aimed at Russia.

The Russians have never believed these assurances and have always been sure that the system was directed at themselves.

The story of anti-ballistic defence is long and tortuous.

The U.S. and the USSR first began work on anti-ballistic systems in the 1960s. Discussions for their limitation began at the 1967 U.S.-Soviet summit meeting between Soviet Premier Aleksei Kosygin and U.S. President Lyndon Johnson in Glassboro. The proposal came from the U.S., concerned about the spiraling cost of such systems and their effect on global stability.

The negotiations eventually culminated in the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, a cornerstone of the subsequent program of mutually agreed nuclear arms limitation and eventual reduction, achieved during the heyday of the U.S.-Soviet détente era of the early 1970s. The effect of the treaty was to place severe limits on the extent to which either power was permitted to deploy anti-ballistic missile systems.  In practice the USSR only deployed one system – to protect Moscow – and the U.S. abandoned such systems entirely.

Though the original impulse towards anti-ballistic missile limitation came from the U.S., it was from within the U.S. that criticism of the treaty first circulated in the late 1970s, with rumors appearing in the U.S. defence press of the Soviets supposedly experimenting with various exotic technologies to destroy U.S. ballistic missiles. It is now known that these stories were baseless.

The rumors however paved the way for President Reagan’s 1983 announcement of his so-called Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) – a futuristic program to install an anti-ballistic missile system in space. The initiative was justified as compatible with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty on the grounds that the treaty did not prohibit research based on “new physical principles”.

SDI is sometimes credited with forcing the Soviets to negotiate and precipitating the collapse of the USSR. The reality is that the Soviets barely took it seriously and as a program it was stillborn.

Reagan’s endorsement of anti-ballistic missile defence however acquired a totemic importance for parts of the U.S. Republican party and was embraced by U.S. neocons, doubtless in part for its ability to harm relations with Russia. It was endorsed in principle by President George H. W. Bush, who relaunched the initiative in a far more modest land based form. Since in this form it was clearly incompatible with the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, in 2002 the U.S. withdrew from it.

The history of U.S. ideas for anti-ballistic defence show that in reality they have nothing to do with Iran. At the time the program was relaunched by the first President Bush shortly after his election, Iran had neither ballistic missiles with the necessary range to reach Europe, nor nuclear weapons. It does not have either to this day.

In reality the system has always been clearly directed at Russia, though its primary purpose seems to  be (1) to benefit U.S. defence contractors; (2) to gratify the self-appointed guardians of Reagan’s legacy on the Republican Right; and (3) to establish a permanent U.S. military presence in eastern Europe in violation of promises given to Moscow in the 1990s.

The last factor is the most important of the three. Planting U.S. missiles in eastern Europe while pretending their purpose is to defend Europe from a fictional threat from Iran provides the U.S. with an alibi for forward deployment of its troops and missile forces in eastern Europe in violation of promises given to Moscow. For U.S. defence contractors it has the added benefit of making further agreements for arms control with the Russians far more difficult.

That the system is aimed at Russia rather than Iran is confirmed by the US’s consistent refusal to compromise with Moscow on any of its elements. The U.S. refused Putin’s offer to develop a joint system, or to cooperate with Moscow on missile defence.  

In 2009, shortly after his election, Obama appeared to cancel the program in return for a further agreement for arms reduction with the Russians. Once the agreement was obtained, he quickly went back on his promise.

As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has now pointed out, Obama also said in 2009 that anti-ballistic defence would lose its purpose if Iran ended its nuclear program. Iran has now come to an agreement with the U.S. on its nuclear program. The U.S.’s anti-ballistic missile program however continues. The justification now is that it is intended to defend Europe not from Iranian nuclear weapons but from Iranian ballistic missiles -- even if presumably they have only conventional warheads.

What this saga again illustrates is something that is obvious to anyone who follows the evolution of U.S.-Russian relations closely: the U.S. never stopped thinking of Russia as an adversary and never stopped working against Russian interests, even in those periods when it was pretending that relations were good. In the process the U.S. shows an entirely ruthless --- and cynical --- attitude to arms control treaties it signs with Russia, and to promises it gives to Moscow. 

The anti-ballistic missile system the U.S. is deploying in Europe will not change the military balance between the U.S. and Russia, even if it is hugely expanded in the future. One of the other advantages for its U.S. supporters of pretending that it was aimed at Iran is that it has prevented a proper debate in the U.S. of its total lack of effectiveness as against the highly advanced Russian systems. Since it is planting U.S. troops and missiles which is its real purpose, that does not unduly concern its advocates.

The damage done to trust and to the future of arms control between the U.S. and Russia --- still the world’s two leading nuclear powers --- cannot however be overstated. The lesson the Russians will have learned from this affair is that the U.S. cannot be trusted to abide honestly by its arms control commitments. The future of arms control --- with all that means for international peace and stability --- is growing dimmer. This episode shows why.

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