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Commentary | 22 April 2016

Time to decouple European missile defense from Iran

Image of Tytti Erästö

Tytti Erästö |Roger L. Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund, Washington D.C.

Defence EU Iran JCPOA NATO Nuclear Weapons Global Security

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran undermines the previous argument for the European missile shield, and it is high time to revisit the issue with greater scrutiny. Instead of continuing to insist on the Iranian threat or unidentified new ‘rogue’ enemies, it makes sense to reevaluate the old proposal by George H.W. Bush to direct missile defense against a greater and truly universal threat, namely the threat of accidental or unauthorized launches.

The threat of Iranian nuclear-armed missiles, which might be used against Europe, has been the key argument behind the construction of NATO’s missile defense system on the continent. With the successful conclusion to the nuclear talks and implementation of the July 2015 nuclear deal however, the narrative linking the Iranian threat to global missile defense is becoming harder to sustain. A comprehensive nuclear deal has created increasing Western confidence in Iran’s intentions, and it is leading to a normalization of relations between Iran and Europe.

The implications of this for missile defense have not gone unnoticed by Russia, which sees the system as potentially threatening. Although Russian arguments have been given little attention in the general context of increasing tensions over the crisis in Ukraine, the situation has long-term implications for nuclear arms control that should not be overlooked in Western capitals. One needs, in particular, to carefully reassess the seriousness of what is described as the remaining Iranian threat to Europe.

The association between Iran and missile defense dates back to the US withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. The 1972 treaty embodied a shared understanding between the US and the Soviet Union that unrestricted development of missile defenses could disrupt strategic balance. The changed US position came to be justified in terms of the need to protect American people against ‘future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks’. Soon after this, the plans for national missile defense turned global, as the system was extended to the Asia-Pacific and Europe. In Asia, the rationale was to protect against North Korea, while the Iranian threat justified the European missile shield.

The Obama administration subsequently modified the European plans to accommodate some of the Russian concerns. At the same time, President Obama continued to emphasize the Iranian threat to Europe as the main rationale behind the system: as he explained in 2009, missile defense was necessary to protect “the United States and Europe from an Iranian ballistic missile armed with a nuclear warhead”. Furthermore, he assured that “if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program is eliminated, the driving force for missile defense in Europe will be eliminated”.

The latter part of Obama’s previous argument is rarely heard today. In effect, there has been little reflection in the US or Europe on what a successful nuclear deal means for European missile defense. In Russia, however, the reverse linkage has not been lost: as the head of the State Duma committee on foreign affairs argued already in connection with the 2013 interim agreement with Iran, that agreement questioned whether “there is any sense of the missile shield in Europe being created by NATO”.

To be precise, the Iran-P5+1 deal focuses on limiting Iran’s nuclear program, not its missile capabilities. In fact, Iran has continued the further development of those capabilities during the implementation of the nuclear deal, as evidenced by the latest round of medium-range missile tests in March. However, this can hardly be seen to constitute the kind of threat that would justify the huge investments that are made on NATO’s missile shield.

First, the main rationales for Iran’s missile program are regional. The country’s ballistic missile development began as a response to the experiences of the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, and arguably its current objective is to deter Israeli attacks, which have remained a possibility even after the nuclear deal. Iran’s relations with its immediate neighbors in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, also remain unfriendly and competitive. Any Iranian concessions regarding its missile program are thus unlikely without a profound change in regional relations.

Second, the claim about Iran’s aggressive intentions towards Europe has always lacked a rational basis, except perhaps in the context following a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Both the scenario of Iran attacking a nuclear-armed military alliance with conventional missiles and even the previously more compelling idea of it doing so with a nuclear-armed missile are based on the assumption that the country’s leaders are completely mad. Moreover, the technological level of Iran’s missile arsenal is nowhere near the kind of capability that would threaten either its potential regional adversaries or Europe. As Justin Bronk recently pointed out, Iran’s medium-range missiles with conventional warheads could be “inconvenient and costly” but they would “certainly not turn the tide of any military operation against Iran by the Gulf Cooperation Council, Israel or the US”.

Together with the hardly insignificant technological fact that missile defense is not even likely to work in real life circumstances due to the ease of bypassing it with decoys and other measures, the above considerations point to the conclusion that the European missile shield should simply be abandoned.

Given political realities, however, no objective assessment of the threat nor even curbing the Iranian missile program is likely to stop advances in missile defense. In the words of Steven Pifer, the system is driven “more by theology than common sense” in US Congressional debate. In Europe, the continuation of the project seems to be ensured by the general lack of public interest in the issue, as well as aversion to anything resembling a concession to Russia in the current circumstances.

The Iran nuclear deal thus presents an additional dilemma for the already strained US-Russian strategic relationship. That European missile defense plans have continued uninterrupted until this day has confirmed long-held Russian suspicions about this system being really designed against Russia. This does not bode well for nuclear arms control, as European missile defense has been a recurring obstacle to US-Russian nuclear arms reductions and is likely to remain so in the future.

At present, it might seem tempting simply to declare the European missile shield as aimed against Russian missile capability. Indeed, some of NATO’s East European members openly proposed redirecting the system against Russia in 2014 and that discussion seems to continue. A more careful thought, however, should reveal the inherent absurdity of this option, as it would presume not only expanding the current plans several times, but also creating a defense system against cruise missiles. In addition to being unrealistic practically, even planning for this option would lead to deepening distrust and arms race.

Arguably a better solution would be to recast the system as defense against accidental launches. A proposal to that effect was made by US President George H.W. Bush in 1992, even though the subsequent US-Russian consultations ended without tangible result when Bush Sr. left office. However, the idea is still worth exploring. Looking back at the several cases when an accidental nuclear war was avoided simply by good luck, this threat can be said to be much more imminent than suicidal leaders with their fingers on the nuclear button. It would also have the benefit of not being dependent on fluctuating political relations, nor intractable conflicts with certain adversaries. Its purpose would remain as long as there are nuclear weapons in the world. Additionally, such a system could provide protection against terrorist attacks. Although the ballistic missile threat has not been generally associated with non-state actors, recent Scud missile attacks by the Houthi rebels in Yemen against Saudi Arabia suggest that this possibility should not be overlooked.

A defensive system against accidental or terrorist missile launches could offer protection against a small number of launches coming from any direction, including Russia, the US, or the Middle East. It could work as an appropriately updated and perhaps a somewhat expanded version of what is currently in place. During the 2010 Lisbon summit, discussions on NATO-Russia cooperation on missile defense foundered on the question of who would control the system: Moscow wanted the right of veto on the launch of interceptors, which NATO was not ready to accept. Bearing this in mind, a new collectively managed system against accidental launches might be thinkable in terms of mixed controls. More specifically, it could consist of a NATO segment, a Russian segment, and a joint segment, linking land- and space-based early warning assets in a seamless automatic mode to allow detection, tracking, and exchange of information on interceptor launches within the common space over greater Europe.

Although current tensions are not optimal for arms control, this must not inhibit us from long-term thinking. The reframing of the missile defense dispute could begin with a gradual change of US and European rhetoric, decoupling the Iranian threat from missile defence. Ideally, this would help overcome the muddled strategic thinking behind the European missile shield project. Such clarity might lead NATO to either abandon the system or reshape it with the aim of preventing accidental nuclear launches, in cooperation with Russia. Even if the latter alternative would prove to be too challenging technologically or politically, the cooperative endeavor it would initiate could open the door for much-needed confidence-building – an objective that will ultimately be much more critical to international security than further investment in European missile defense.


The author would like to thank Dr. Nikolai N. Sokov (senior fellow at the James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation studies) for his invaluable comments for this article.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.