WASHINGTON – President Bush said Tuesday that a missile defense system is urgently needed in Europe to guard against a possible attack on U.S. allies by Iran, while Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested the United States could delay activating such a system until there is “definitive proof” of such a threat.
The seemingly contrasting messages came as the Bush administration grappled with continuing Russian protests over Washington’s plan to deploy elements of a missile defense system in Eastern Europe.
The Kremlin considers the program a potential threat to its own nuclear deterrence and has sought to play down any threat from Iran.
Both Bush and Gates affirmed that they want to proceed with deployment of the system, including 10 anti-missile interceptors in Poland and a radar-tracking facility in the Czech Republic projected for completion in 2012. Bush cited Iran’s development of ballistic missiles that could strike Israel and Turkey, and said Tehran is also developing missiles that could strike NATO countries.
“The need for missile defense in Europe is real and I believe it’s urgent,” Bush said in his remarks at the National Defense University.
“Today,” he added, “we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat, so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can.”
At a separate appearance in Prague, Gates suggested Russian concerns could be allayed by delaying operation of the Eastern European sites until the Iranian missile threat to Europe materialized.
“We have not fully developed this proposal,” Gates said, “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 would delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran.”
White House officials said there was no daylight between Bush and Gates, saying that Gates is committed to the system but is looking for ways to address the Russian objections. Spokesman Gordon Johndroe said there is no doubt that “the program will go forward.”