US speeds deployment of missile defenses to counter Iran

Obama steps up pressure over nuclear program

By David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt
New York Times / January 31, 2010

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WASHINGTON - The Obama administration is accelerating the deployment of a series of new defenses against possible Iranian missile attacks in the Persian Gulf, placing special ships off the Iranian coast and antimissile systems in at least four Arab countries, according to administration and military officials.

The deployments come at a critical turning point in President Obama’s dealings with Iran’s leadership, when he is warning that his diplomatic outreach will now be combined with the “consequences,’’ as he put it in the State of the Union address, of the country’s continued defiance on its nuclear program.

The administration is trying to win broad international consensus for sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which Western nations say controls the military side of the nuclear program.

As part of that effort, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton publicly warned China on Friday that its opposition to sanctions was shortsighted. The Senate, meanwhile, last week unanimously approved a resolution authorizing sanctions that include cutting off gasoline to Iran, a step Obama’s aides say he is reluctant to take.

The deployments are partly intended to address US concerns about retaliation for whatever sanctions are imposed. The administration is also trying to demonstrate to Israel that there is no immediate need for preemptive strikes against Iran.

The news that the United States is deploying antimissile defenses - which included a rare public discussion by General David H. Petraeus - appears to be part of a coordinated strategy to increase pressure on Iran. By highlighting the defensive nature of the buildup, the administration was trying to contain any threat without provoking a sharp response from Tehran.

Because many countries in the Gulf are hesitant to be publicly identified as accepting US military aid, Petraeus declined to say who was taking the equipment. In fact, the names of the countries where Patriot antimissile batteries are deployed are classified, but many of them are an open secret.

Military officials said that the countries that accepted the missiles were Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait. Saudi Arabia and Israel have long had similar equipment of their own.

Petraeus spoke about the deployments at a conference on Jan. 22, saying that “Iran is clearly seen as a very serious threat by those on the other side of the Gulf front, and indeed, it has been a catalyst for the implementation of the architecture that we envision and have now been trying to implement.’’

Petraeus said the acceleration of defensive systems included “eight Patriot missile batteries, two in each of four countries.’’

Petraeus also described a first line of defense: He said the United States was now keeping Aegis cruisers on patrol in the Persian Gulf at all times. Those cruisers are equipped with advanced radar and antimissile systems designed to intercept medium-range missiles.

None of those systems would be useful against Iran’s long-range missile, the Shahab III, but intelligence agencies believe it will be years before Iran can solve the many problems involved in placing a nuclear warhead atop that missile.

US officials contend that that willingness of Arab states to take the US antimissile emplacements illustrates the region’s growing unease about Iran’s ambitions and abilities.

In discussing the deployments, Petraeus’s main message has been to reassure allies in the Gulf that the United States is committed to helping defend the region, said a senior military officer who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. But the general’s remarks were also pointed reminder to the Iranians of US resolve, the officer said.