WASHINGTON – President Bush said Tuesday that plans for a U.S.-led missile defense system in Europe are urgently needed to counter an emerging threat of attack by Iran.
"If (Iran) chooses to do so, and the international community does not take steps to prevent it, it is possible Iran could have this capability," Bush said. "And we need to take it seriously — now."
Bush's latest warning about Iran's nuclear ambitions came in a broad defense of his security policies at the National Defense University. He said intelligence estimates show that Iran could have the capability to strike the United States and many European allies by 2015.
"The need for missile defense in Europe is real, and I believe it's urgent," Bush said.
Bush's warning about Iran was contradicted by Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov during a visit to Tokyo. He said U.S.-led missile defense initiatives in Europe and Asia are based on an erroneous assessment of the threat posed by Iran.
"North Korea poses a fundamental threat, but Iran does not," Lavrov was quoted as telling Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.
Bush sought to allay Russia's concerns and draw Moscow in, portraying the proposed system as a "cooperative effort" against "an emerging threat that affects us all."
He spoke somewhat positively of President Vladimir Putin's offer of facilities for this purpose in Azerbaijan and southern Russia. The idea would be to replace the U.S. plans for missiles based in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic.
Bush said the project as a whole is "part of a broader effort to move beyond the Cold War" and "could lead to an unprecedented level of strategic cooperation between" Russia and the United States.
But the president's words were not likely to appease his Russian counterpart, who has instead sounded as if the Cold War is beginning again over the dispute. Bush said only that Putin's suggested alternative "could be included as part of a wider threat monitoring system" and made clear that the Poland- and Czech-based plan is still the operative one for the United States.
"The danger of ballistic missile attacks is a threat we share and we ought to respond to this threat together," Bush said.
Bush complained that Congress has cut money for missile defenses by hundreds of millions of dollars.
"Missile defense is a vital tool for our security. It's a vital tool for deterrence and it's a vital tool for proliferation," the president said. "Yet despite all these benefits, the United States Congress is cutting funding for missile defense."
He said money for missile defense in Europe had been reduced by $139 million. He said that "could delay deployment for a year or more and undermine our allies who are working with us to deploy such a system on their soil."
Further, he said Congress had eliminated $51 million from an airborne-laser program intended to intercept missiles in the boost stage of flight. Beyond that, he said that $50 million had been cut from the multiple-kill vehicle program that is supposed to counter decoy missiles as well as actual warheads. Another $50 million had been cut from a space tracking and surveillance system of satellites used to detect and track missiles posing a threat to the United States.
"Each of these programs is vital to the security of America and Congress needs to fully fund them," the president said.
"The greatest threat facing our nation in the 21st century is the danger of terrorist networks or terrorist states armed with weapons of mass destruction," he said.
The proposal has already been presented to the Russians, who strongly oppose having U.S. missile defense bases in Europe but have expressed interest in the proposal Gates mentioned Tuesday, which Gates said has yet to be worked out in detail.
"We would consider tying together activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat — in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on," Gates said with Topolanek at his side.
The United States wants to build a missile interceptor base in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, but details have yet to be negotiated.
"We have not fully developed this proposal, but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran," the defense chief said.
U.S. officials have said that the proposal tying activation of the European sites to proof of an Iranian threat was presented to the Russians by Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month. But Gates' remarks in Prague were the most specific and clear that such a proposition raises the prospect of delay.
Much of the disagreement between Washington and Moscow over missile defense in Europe has centered on the question of when Iran's missile program would reach the stage where it could threaten all of Europe and the United States. The Russians say that is a far-distant prospect; the Americans say it is coming soon.
Gates described a related proposal to the Russians that might mean permitting a Russian presence at U.S. missile defense bases, including at the Polish and Czech sites. He said this was presented to the Russians in the interest of making as transparent as possible to Moscow how the missile defense sites operate.
The Pentagon wants to install 10 interceptor rockets in Poland which, when linked to a proposed tracking radar in the Czech Republic and to other elements of the existing U.S. missile defense system based in the United States, could defend all of Europe against a long-range missile fired from the Middle East.