PRAGUE, Czech Republic — U.S. missile defense plans for Europe, once a foreign policy priority, have suffered a series of setbacks in the past two days.
The Czech Republic's interim government announced Wednesday that it will not put missile defense ratification on the parliamentary agenda during its time in office, a fresh blow to U.S. plans. That decision came after a clutch of new developments in the United States, Russia and Iran.
A newly released report, co-authored by a team of U.S. and Russian experts, is highly critical of the U.S. missile defense plans, which call for 10 interceptors in Poland and an accompanying radar base in the Czech Republic.
The Bush administration aggressively pursued the system's development, claiming the United States and its European allies needed to protect themselves from an Iranian missile strike.
But the U.S.-Russia report casts doubt on the system's ability to protect either the U.S. or Europe while noting that Iran currently has virtually no capability to attack.
Ted Postol, an expert on the physics and engineering behind missile technology and a co-author of the report, was unequivocal in his assessment.
“The radar has no chance of doing the job,” nor do the interceptors, he said bluntly. “The technical capabilities are not there, and they will not be there. On the bright side, the threat is not there and will not be there,” he said, speaking of Iran.
Meanwhile, in Tehran, Iran's government announced it had successfully launched its latest medium-range missile — the solid-fuel Sajjil-2 — with a range of 1,200 miles, capable of reaching not only Israel, but American bases in the Persian Gulf.
Wednesday's missile launch notwithstanding, fears of an Iranian attack appear to be years away from being realized, Postol said.
"People confuse missile capability with nuclear capability — that does not necessarily follow," he said in a phone interview from Washington. "The ability to slim down a nuclear weapon to put it on a warhead is a lot of work." (And U.S. intelligence suggests Iran is still a ways away from developing even a crude nuclear device.)
"I don't like the Iranian government, but they're extremely intelligent," he said. "It would be extremely stupid of the Iranians to attack the U.S or Europe."
"Iran understands that we would turn them into a glass parking lot," he added.
The missile defense system's future in Europe was further clouded by the start of nuclear disarmament talks in Moscow between the United States and Russia. The Kremlin is warning that the talks will flounder if the United States pursues its plans.
The Bush administration scoffed at Russia's security concerns related to missile defense in Europe but U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Wednesday that the Obama administration was still undecided about its missile defense plans, according to the Associated Press.
Postol said the system may be harmless today, but that could change over time.
"It does create a strong sense that the U.S. is putting its foot in the door to build something much more substantial that could spot Russian ICBMs launched from the west of the Urals (mountain range)," he said, using the abbreviation for intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Back in Prague, Foreign Minister Jan Kohout was quoted in Wednesday's Lidove noviny — one of the country's leading newspapers — saying, "The radar will not be on the agenda of this government. Only the next government, to be formed on the basis of parliamentary elections, will deal with missile defense."
The government of Prime Minister Jan Fischer will lead the country to early elections in October. The previous right-of-center government collapsed in a vote of no-confidence two months ago. The winner of the autumn election will then attempt to form a new governing coalition, which could take several weeks, or months, depending on the election results.
A pair of bilateral treaties between the United States and the Czech Republic has been signed and passed by the Czech Senate. But the treaties won't become binding unless they are also ratified by the lower chamber of parliament. The previous government withdrew the treaties from the parliamentary agenda in March, fearing they would be defeated.
When, or if, the treaties ever come to a vote in parliament will likely depend on the election results in October. The right-wing Civic Democratic Party — which led the last government — was the only party fully supporting the U.S. radar plan. Its junior coalition partners were divided over the issue and the opposition was united in opposing it.
The Czech Social Democratic Party, which has been unequivocal in its opposition to U.S. missile defense plans, currently leads in public opinion polls by as much as 8 percent.
But the future of missile defense in Europe will likely be decided in Washington, where the Obama administration is re-evaluating the security threats posed to America and its allies, according to Victoria Samson, Washington director of the Secure World Foundation, which focuses on the use of outer space.
"There is more of an acknowledgment of where the actual ballistic missile threats are," she said. "(The Bush administration was) focused very heavily on the Hail Mary pass — a sort of 1 in a million chance of an ICBM launch against the United States."
"That's what the (ground-based defense) system was really designed for," she continued. "But when you look at countries that have ballistic missiles, many of them have short- and medium-range missiles. And often times those are in theater where U.S. forces are."
More on missile defense:
No clear path forward for missile defense
All eyes on North Korea, for good reason
U.S. and Russia turn a corner