PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC
US plans to extend its "star wars" missile-defense program to Europe, which once dismissed the technology as an unproven cold-war anachronism, are gaining acceptance among governments here.
Despite Russia's mounting opposition, the Czech Republic, Poland, and – as of Friday – Britain have all expressed serious interest in hosting parts of the shield. Other countries traditionally cool to the idea have been notably quiet. The trigger: concern about a nuclear Iran.
"This is all a result of Iran," says Tim Williams, a European security analyst at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. "Governments see that Iranian missiles can hit Europe, and suddenly they are very worried about the threat from ballistic missiles. They have to look at missile defenses."
Sunday, Iranian media reported that the country had launched a rocket into space, raising speculation that Iran was nearing the technological capacity to launch intercontinental missiles. That report, which quoted the head of Iran's aerospace research center, was quickly denied by his deputy, however, who said that the rocket in fact was suborbital. [Editor's note: The original version did not fully explain the deputy's denial of the original report.]
There was no such equivocation from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who, ahead of Tuesday's UN Security Council meeting on Iran's disputed nuclear program, compared its nuclear drive to a train that has no brakes.
The US, which says that a European shield would intercept ballistic missiles fired from "rogue states" such as Iran, wants to build a radar station here in the Czech Republic and a corresponding base with 10 interceptor missiles in neighboring Poland. After years of talks, the US last month approached the Czech and Polish governments about hosting the shield.
Since then, developments have come quickly. A week ago, Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek met with Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Warsaw and said they expected to go along with the plan. Then on Friday, Britain confirmed that Prime Minister Tony Blair has been in talks with the US about stationing antiballistic missiles there as part of the shield.
Czech President Václav Klaus travels to Washington next month to discuss the matter with Vice President Dick Cheney. President Bush is weighing a trip to Poland and possibly here this summer.
Currently two bases – one in Alaska, one in California, believed to host 13 and three missiles respectively – make up the US missile defense shield. Detractors say missile defense technology – in which radars and missile silos work in tandem to pinpoint and then intercept enemy missiles – still remains unproven.
But Mr. Bush has made missile defense a priority: He has earmarked $18.5 billion to be spent by 2009. Czech media reported that the US plans to set aside $118 million for a base in Central Europe this year.
"The US is eager to move quickly on this because they have spent a lot of money and they want something to show for it," says Mr. Williams.
The plan is to start constructing the base and radar station next year, with the shield coming online by 2012.
Russia, whose Kaliningrad enclave borders Poland, has been the plan's most vocal opponent so far. A Russian general recently threatened Czechs and Poles with a future retaliatory missile strike.
And in Munich earlier this month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the missile shield would plunge the world into a new arms race, and that the US, Europe, and Russia were on the brink of a new cold war.
"[The proposed shield] is very serious, and it breaks the strategic balance that now exists in Europe," says Alexey Fedotov, Moscow's ambassador to Prague.
Germany chided the US for not informing Russia of its designs on an antiballistic missile base in Poland, but it also appeared to throw some support to the US, calling for a full discussion of the proposal without protests and "anti-American insinuations." France, traditionally Europe's staunchest opponent of missile defense, has been silent on the issue, as have Denmark and Sweden – two countries that have been cool toward past US missile defense plans.
"You don't see the French and Germans kicking up much of a fuss about this," says Williams.
The shift away from opposition to US plans for a missile shield has been subtle and easy to miss, experts say. In a largely unnoticed speech about his country's nuclear strategy, for example, French President Jacques Chirac said last year for the first time that there was room in it for missile defense.
The US plan is moving ahead outside NATO, whose own shield proposal – the Active Load Theater Missile Defense – has dragged on for years in feasibility studies.
But it is NATO, experts say, which sheds some light on Russia's truculent opposition to a US missile base in Europe.
Since the fall of communism, Moscow watched as NATO continued to expand almost to its borders, incorporating most of the countries in the former Eastern Bloc.
"There is a moment when you suddenly remember all the bad things that have been happening for some time. You look at them and you see an array of negative signals, and you cannot ignore them," says Ivan Safranchuk, director of the Moscow branch of the World Security Institute.
But Russia watchers see little likelihood that Moscow will act.
"Russia's response is totally political," says Alexander Golts, who covers security issues for Yezhednyevny Zhurnal, an online newspaper in Russia. "To all serious experts it's obvious that this missile defense cannot threaten Russia's nuclear forces."
The Czech and Polish governments seem poised to move on the US plan without putting it to a public vote, despite a growing call in both countries for a referendums. A Czech poll last week put 60 percent of the country against hosting any part of the shield, and in Britain, antinuclear groups are already criticizing the Blair government for wanting to be involved in the US shield.
"What we're seeing now is the product of near on seven years of diplomatic effort led by the Bush administration to get European governments to leave behind the cold-war version of missile defense," says Tom Karako, director of the Claremont Institute, a conservative think tank in Claremont, Calif.
"Now that the cold war is over, these governments have come to the realization that that version ... won't suffice in the future."