President Obama's decision to scrap former President George W. Bush's plans for a missile defense shield in Eastern Europe came under harsh criticism Thursday from some members of Congress who, invoking Cold War memories, warned that the move would only "empower" Russia at the expense of U.S. allies.
The Obama administration said its decision had nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with Iran. The president and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said the move was made in large part because the latest intelligence out of Iran shows a greater threat coming from short- and medium-range missiles, and the old plans were developed with long-range, intercontinental ballistic missiles in mind.
But officials in the U.S. and other countries have been warning that Iran is making headway in developing long-range missiles and a nuclear weapon, leading Obama's critics to accuse him of simply caving to Russia, which had been irritated by Bush's proposal to build the defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.
"It will empower the Russians and it will scare the crap out of the Poles, Czechs, Ukranians and Georgians. It is a huge mistake," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on FOX News Radio.
Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., called Obama's decision "dangerous and short-sighted" in a written statement.
"Not only does this decision leave America vulnerable to the growing Iranian long-range missile threat, it also turns back the clock to the days of the Cold War, when Eastern Europe was considered the domain of Russia.
"This will be a bitter disappointment, indeed, even a warning to the people of Eastern Europe," Kyl said. "The message the administration sends today is clear: the United States will not stand behind its friends and views 're-setting' relations with Russia more important."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., warned that the decision to scale back in Eastern Europe comes at a time when those nations are "increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism."
"Given the strong and enduring relationships we have forged with the region's nations since the end of the Cold War, we should not, I believe, take steps backward in strengthening these ties," McCain said.
"Scrapping the U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic does little more than empower Russia and Iran at the expense of our allies in Europe," House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said.
Some critics doubted the administration's claim that intelligence shows the nature of the Iranian threat has changed.
Iran launched a satellite into space in February, a move that suggests the nation is making progress on long-range technology. The country also fired a mid-range rocket in May. And officials have warned repeatedly that Iran is developing technology that will allow it to build a nuclear weapon.
The Associated Press reported Thursday that, according to a secret report, officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency found Iran has the capacity to make a nuclear bomb and is developing a missile system to carry one.
Washington's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency warned just one week ago that Iran "is now either very near or in possession" of enough material to make a nuclear weapon.
And a U.S. State Department official in February called the satellite launch a development which "establishes the technical basis from which Iran could develop long-range ballistic missile systems."
"History is not kind to leaders who sacrifice our Polish allies," Rep. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., said Thursday. "Iran, a state sponsor of terrorists, now makes the longest-range missile of the terrorist world."
Jiri Pere, a longtime aide to former Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel, told FOX News that Havel and other Czech politicians are "let down" by the apparent decision to scrap the shield program. The general public may be less disappointed, as polls show as much as 80 percent of the Czech population opposes a U.S. shield system in their country.
Pere said that while the stated objective of the shield was to protect the West from the Iranian threat, the "unspoken message" was to fend off Russian aggression.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell denied the claim that the decision was made with Russia in mind.
"This improvement to the system has nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with Iran," he said.
"Those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing," Gates said.
He said the new system will allow for a "distributed sensor network" as opposed to a "single fixed site."
Speaking from the Pentagon, he said missile interceptors can be deployed in northern and southern Europe as well as on ships. He said a second phase could lead Eastern Europe to house missiles.
Some prominent Senate Democrats came out in defense of the president's decision Thursday.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., called it a "sound choice."
"Iran already has many hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles, and has been adding more, but will not have long-range missiles for years to come," Levin said in a statement.