WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama’s decision to refocus U.S. missile defenses in Europe on Iran’s short- to medium-range missile threat was based on a revised intelligence assessment that officials said hinged on factors that could easily change.
The new U.S. assessment of how long it would take for Iran to have an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting the United States and all of Europe was contained in a classified document sent to Obama some four months before Thursday’s announcement.
The May 2009 National Intelligence Estimate deemed Tehran unlikely to have a long-range missile until between 2015 and 2020, U.S. officials who spoke on condition of anonymity said.
A previous assessment, used by former President George W. Bush to justify plans for deploying a missile defense system in Europe to counter the threat of long-range missiles from Iran, said the threshold would be crossed between 2012 and 2015.
Under Obama’s revised missile defense plan, the United States would not deploy upgraded SM-3 interceptor missiles in Europe to defend against a long-range missile from Iran until around 2020, according to a White House factsheet.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a former CIA chief, told reporters on Friday that he was “more familiar with the risks of over-reliance on intelligence than anybody because I’ve seen how often it’s been wrong.” But he said the system proposed by Obama was flexible enough to be adjusted if “the Iranians develop a capability sooner than the intelligence is saying.”
Gates had cautioned against waiting too long to put defenses in place. After talks in 2007 with Russian leaders skeptical about the threat of Iranian rockets targeting Western Europe, Gates cited his CIA experience and said: “Anyone who would argue that Iran and other countries in the Middle East might not have missiles of that kind of range and capability would be making a very risky assessment.”
Some current and former officials said the new National Intelligence Estimate amounted to a relatively small shift in U.S. thinking about when Iran will have long-range missiles.
They said Tehran could push ahead more quickly if it received technical assistance from a third party. “That’s something you’ve got to worry about,” a current administration official said. “But we’ve not seen that to date.”
After U.S. spy agencies wrongly concluded that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, intelligence estimates have come under greater scrutiny.
In 2007, a National Intelligence Estimate judgment that Iran had not restarted its nuclear-weapons development program — an assessment that officials say has not be changed — was challenged by Israel and some European allies.
It was not immediately clear whether there were dissenting views on Iran’s missile capabilities in the May estimate.
The U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center said in June that Iran could produce an intercontinental missile by 2015 provided it receives “sufficient foreign assistance.” That same month, Gates’ deputy William Lynn cited a recent Iranian space launch as evidence of technological progress that Tehran could use for long-range missiles.
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, who headed the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency until January 1, said Obama appeared to be “accepting more risk” of Iran developing ICBM’s than the Bush administration had been prepared to accept.
He cited Iran’s orbiting of a satellite in February and test-firing in May of a rocket which is said by Tehran to have a range of about 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles).
“It seems that the more recent developments indicate that they’re ... kind of getting there faster than we thought, and yet the threat assessments are going the other way,” Obering said. “I can’t reconcile that in my mind.”
Republican Senator Christopher Bond, vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said he saw “no reason to change” earlier assessments of Iran’s missile program.
James Lindsay at the Council on Foreign Relations said Bush rushed to deploy a system to counter long-range missiles that “was mismatched to the threat we face” from Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles, although he added: “You can read intelligence very differently.”
Greg Thielmann, a former State Department intelligence analyst, said the change in the intelligence estimate was justified because the “unintentional default setting” of U.S. intelligence agencies has been to “overestimate” Iranian advances. But he said of revised intelligence forecasts: “You cannot necessarily take them to the bank.”
Additional reporting by Jim Wolf, Susan Cornwell and Jeff Mason; Editing by Jackie Frank