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Is US Gulf missile move defensive or aggressive?

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

An increase in anti-missile capabilities by the United States in the Gulf should probably be seen as more of a defensive manoeuvre against Iran than an aggressive one.

US officials have let it be known that it now has Patriot batteries in four Gulf states - Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar. US anti-missile ships are also being stationed in the Gulf.

A US Navy boat seen from the deck of a US military ship docked in Manama, Bahrain, on 20 Jan 2010
The US has been beefing up its defence capabilities in the Gulf

However, Iran sees the deployment has an excuse to increase US dominance in the area and to whip up Iranphobia. It says it has good relations with its neighbours.

Uranium plan

Meanwhile, the impasse over Iran's uranium enrichment showed signs of being broken when President Ahmadinejad said this week that he now had "no problem" with the proposal to take the bulk of Iran's low-enriched uranium to Russia and France for conversion into fuel rods for a medical reactor running short on fuel. Until now Iran has rejected the plan. If this is more than an attempt to undermine the move towards more sanctions, it could herald a major step forward.

British officials said that the key element in Iran's attitude was whether it would engage in serious talks with the countries trying to negotiate with it. In January, these countries assessed that Iran was not ready to do so.

Missile defences

The stationing of extra anti-missile defences in the Gulf is likely to be part of an American effort to reassure its nervous Gulf Arab allies that it is acting to contain whatever threat they see from Iran.

That threat is regarded as increasingly coming from ballistic missiles. The increased capability, of course, also gives the US better options if there is a confrontation with Iran.

And the deployment should also be viewed in the context of a review of US ballistic missile strategy being presented by the Obama administration to Congress.

Better defences in the Gulf are part of that and so are other measures to make up for the abandonment of the system in Poland and the Czech Republic, designed to counter any longer-term threat from Iran.

A useful comparison is with the way in which the US has built up anti-missile defences for Japan and South Korea against North Korea. It has provided both countries with the ship-based Aegis system and last year Japan deployed this fully for the first time in response to North Korean missile tests.

'Strategic intent'

US strategy against Iran therefore continues to be a mixture of economic and diplomatic pressure plus military measures that do not, at present, include an intention to attack Iran.

President Obama has effectively dropped offers to reach out and in his recent State of the Union speech spoke of 'growing consequences' if Iran did not comply with UN resolutions

The US position on Iran was delicately summed up on 7 January by Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "I believe they're on a path that has a strategic intent to develop nuclear weapons, and have been for some time.

"I think that outcome is potentially a very, very destabilising outcome. On the other hand, when asked about striking Iran, specifically, that also has a very, very destabilising outcome. "

The admiral acknowledged that the US does have plans for an attack ("Should the president call for military options, we must have them ready," he said in December) but the emphasis still is on non-military measures.

In contrast, one can note that pressure for further action against Iran is still coming from some quarters. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair said last week that he favoured a "very tough, hard line" without saying whether this meant a military strike.

So where do we stand on any new measures?

President Obama has effectively dropped offers to reach out and in his recent State of the Union speech spoke of "growing consequences" if Iran did not comply with UN resolutions. Iran says its intentions are peaceful.

The president has concluded that Iran is not interested in the "extended hand" he held out last year. Whether the latest statement from President Ahmadinejad changes matters remains to be seen. The US has already begun to discuss moves to impose greater sanctions on Iran.

These would aim at the financial activities of the Revolutionary Guards, it seems, though the US Congress still wants sanctions against exports of refined petroleum products to Iran. Iran's inability to make such products is one of its main weaknesses.

China and Russia are currently resisting any further measures by the Security Council and China and the US have their own diplomatic arguments at the moment (over freedom for Google in China and US arms sales to Taiwan), so at some stage the US will have to decide whether to act outside the Security Council with whatever allies (the EU mainly) it can muster.

Israel seems ready to accept that for the time being, sanctions are the course to follow.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk



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