Deploying missile defense to the region would help contain and dissuade nuclear Iran
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Pending the fielding of much more effective capabilities for preventing an enemy from using nuclear weapons, it seems clear that the United States will be compelled to temper its objectives vis-àvis regional adversaries when those adversaries possess even modest numbers of nuclear weapons that can be delivered only to targets in their regions. The distinguishing feature of the post–Cold War security environment has been the United States' ability to impose its will on recalcitrant states that resort to violence in persistent violation of international norms. The fact that the United States possessed military forces whose capabilities were unquestionably superior to those of its potential adversaries made this possible. This "golden era" of conventional power projection may be coming to a close in important parts of Eurasia. If the United States and its allies cannot find ways to neutralize small arsenals of nuclear weapons or prevent them from being delivered to targets outside of their home countries, they will have to accept that military operations to impose regime change must be reserved for situations of only the direst sort.
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Preventive military action, by either the United States or Israel, in the event that this diplomatic initiative fails, appears unattractive given its risks and costs.However, the option should be examined closely, both for what it could accomplish and given the dangers of living with a near or actual Iranian nuclear weapons capability. Because of Israel’s vulnerability to an Iranian nuclear first strike, its fuse will necessarily be shorter than America’s. And negotiations—as well as stepped-up sanctions— will inevitably take time to work. To increase Israel’s tolerance for a more drawn-out diplomatic engagement, President Obama should bolster Israel’s deterrent capabilities by providing a nuclear guarantee and an enhanced antiballistic missile defense capability.
As a vital component to the mix of strategies necessary to forestall a regional proliferation cascade, the United States must also pursue robust deterrence and reassurance policies in the Middle East. It should be made clear to Iran that the major powers would take whatever action was necessary to stop it from crossing the line to weapons acquisition.
Such action should not include providing an extended nuclear deterrence to Middle Eastern states, as has sometimes been proposed as a measure to contain Iran and to pre-empt any felt need to seek nuclear options themselves. Under current circumstances, the idea is problematic and without credibility. Would the United States really want to tie its nuclear policies to the volatile politics of the Middle East? The potential recipients of the nuclear umbrella are not formal U.S. allies, and after the war in Iraq, the U.S. public is unlikely to want to take on new defense obligations in the Middle East, especially with countries seen as not sharing the same values of democracy and civil rights. Meanwhile, public opinion in most Arab states is strongly opposed to the U.S. nuclear posture, and a nuclear assurance could damage rather than bolster such states' security by sparking domestic upheaval and possibly terrorist attacks.
Instead, reassurance should include the reaffirmation of security commitments to Israel, Turkey, and the Gulf states; the deployment of theater ballistic missile defense systems; and the continuation of Bush administration policies regarding enhancement of other in-theater capabilities and strengthening the defensive capabilities of Iran's neighbors through joint training and other measures. By addressing their security concerns, the United States can reduce the motivations that states in the region might otherwise have to seek a nuclear hedge.
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While Pattani and others suggest that the United States can wait to make some of the above investments until “intelligence estimates shift or it otherwise becomes clear that Iran is developing nuclear weapons,” there are several real benefits to committing to a credible BMD architecture today.33 The first and most obvious is that investments now are necessary to have a credible ballistic missile defense architecture in place that would be able to counter threats from a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition to being able to destroy an Iranian missile that has been launched, missile defenses would aid in U.S. attempts to deter Iranian aggression in the first place. These defenses need not be infallible; they just need to make “the expected costs of aggression high and the expected probability of achieving the benefits low.”[footnote=3074]34[/footnote=3074]
Being prepared in the near term to counter Iranian threats in the future would also help complicate Tehran’s current nuclear weapons decisionmaking calculus. Missile defense calls into question Iran’s most likely delivery system for a nuclear weapon, and decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack calls into question the viability of the potential threat of a nuclear strike. Proactive action on BMD today introduces uncertainty into Iran’s planning as it considers the utility of building nuclear weapons or developing ICBMs. Patrick Disney argues, “The more the U.S. does to prepare for the day after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, the greater Iran’s incentive becomes to acquire a nuclear deterrent of its own.”35 However, a purely defensive BMD capability overcomes this problem. If the most obvious use for a nuclear weapon is no longer certain to be available, the costs of acquisition become less tenable.
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Using existing technology and continuing to improve existing systems, the United States could field a robust and credible defensive shield in the near term that secures the U.S. homeland and also protects deployed U.S. troops and allies. If the United States commits to focused investment, Washington can redirect time and resources that have been spent on yet unproven technologies. Expansion and improvement of the currently deployed Ground- based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system should be coupled with an expansion and evolu- tion of the current Standard Missile 3 (SM- 3) interceptors of the Aegis missile defense systems deployed on destroyers and ashore. Deployment of additional X-band radars to focus on tracking and discrimination functions, while leaving search and warning to the low- resolution radar systems, is also necessary to increase the reliability of both the Aegis and GMD systems. Add to that a recommitment to an updated Eu ro pe an Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to BMD, and Iran’s ability to threaten U.S. interests with ballistic missiles would be severely curtailed (thereby reducing the effi cacy of developing a nuclear weapon).
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All of this points to the need for much more effective capabilities for preventing nuclear weapons from being used—in particular, to some combination of counterforce capability and wide-area defenses against the most important means of delivering nuclear weapons. Both tasks—finding and neutralizing nuclear weapons and intercepting their delivery vehicles—pose daunting technical and operational challenges. Seriously pursuing these capabilities will require major investments—requirements that will be seen as threats to a host of other budgetary priorities. But without such capabilities, the United States and its allies will find themselves compelled to live with new limits on their freedom of action when it comes to confronting nucleararmed regional adversaries.