A series of failed tests of a joint US-Israel anti-missile system raised new questions on Thursday about the US goal of providing an “umbrella” to defend its allies against an Iranian nuclear attack.
The technological setbacks also drew renewed attention to Israel’s concerns about a nuclear-armed Iran and the possibility that it might lean further in the direction of a go-it alone strike against the country’s atomic facilities.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s offer this week of a “defense umbrella” over its Gulf Arab allies to prevent Tehran from dominating the region “once they have a nuclear weapon” was widely seen in Israel as an acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran. She later tried to dispel that view, but her comments sparked criticism by Israeli officials.
Israel considers Iran its most dangerous enemy because of its nuclear program, long-range missile development and repeated references by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Israel’s destruction. Iran has insisted that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes, but Israel and the US reject that.
Adding to the urgency was word on Wednesday from the head of the Russian nuclear agency that Iran’s new atomic power plant would be switched on later this year.
For a decade, Israel has been presenting its Arrow anti-missile system, developed and jointly funded with the US, as an answer to medium-range Iranian missiles that might carry nuclear warheads. Tested repeatedly, the Arrow system has often succeeded in intercepting dummy incoming missiles, to great fanfare.
However, just as Clinton worried Israelis by speaking of an umbrella over US allies threatened by Iran, word came of three test failures in the Arrow system over the past week. The latest was in California, where a test was aborted before the Arrow missile could be launched because of a communications failure, said Israeli defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to disclose details of the tests.
Experts played down the importance of the failures.
“Arrow has had a pretty successful test program,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org. “I wouldn’t be overly concerned about a problem like this.”
Uzi Rubin, former director of the Arrow project, agreed.
“It’s really not a very serious glitch in the system that would require going back to the drawing board,” Rubin said.
However, the failures underlined the complexity of the whole anti-missile concept, which has been compared to throwing a rock in the air and trying to hit it with another rock. Israeli media personalities wondered if any system could protect Israel if multiple rockets were fired together.
If Clinton’s “umbrella” offer, made in a television interview in Thailand, was meant to reassure nervous Israelis, it had the opposite effect.
Israeli Minister of Intelligence and Atomic Energy Dan Meridor was critical of Clinton’s implications.
He said it appeared “as if they have already come to terms with a nuclear Iran. I think that’s a mistake.”
He told Army Radio: “I think that at this time, it is correct not to deal with the assumption that Iran will obtain nuclear capability, but to prevent that from happening.”
Ever since US President Barack Obama took office with a pledge to explore diplomatic contacts with Iran, Israeli officials have voiced concerns that talks would give Iran more time to develop nuclear weapons. Israelis have also suspected that the Obama administration was planning for a future Middle East that included a nuclear-armed Iran — something Israel would consider a threat to its existence.