As the Obama administration edges toward imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, it has begun upgrading its approach to defending its Persian Gulf allies against potential Iranian missile strikes, officials said Saturday.
The United States has quietly increased the capability of land-based Patriot defensive missiles in several Gulf Arab nations, and one military official said the Navy is beefing up the presence of ships capable of knocking down hostile missiles in flight.
The officials discussed aspects of the defensive strategy on condition of anonymity because some elements are classified.
The moves have been in the works for months and are part of a broader adjustment in the U.S. approach to missile defense, including in Europe and Asia. Details have not been publicly announced, in part because of diplomatic sensitivities in Gulf countries which worry about Iranian military capabilities but are cautious about acknowledging U.S. protection.
The administration will send a review of ballistic missile strategy to Congress on Monday that frames the larger shifts. Attention to defense of the Persian Gulf region, a focus on diffuse networks of sensors and weapons and cooperation with Russia are major elements of the study, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press.
Russia opposed Bush administration plans for a land-based missile defense site in Eastern Europe, and President Barack Obama's decision to walk away from that plan last year was partly in pursuit of new capabilities that might hold greater promise and partly in deference to Russia.
One military official said the adjustments in the Gulf should be seen as prudent defensive measures designed to deter Iran from taking aggressive action in the region, more than as a signal that Washington expects Iran to retaliate for any additional sanctions.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton consulted with numerous allies during a visit to London this week. She told reporters that the evident failure of U.S. offers to engage Iran in negotiations over its nuclear program means the U.S. will now press for additional sanctions against the Iranian government.
Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. Central Command chief who is responsible for U.S. military operations across the Middle East, mentioned in several recent public speeches one element of the defensive strategy in the Gulf: upgrading Patriot missile systems, which originally were deployed in the region to shoot down aircraft but now can hit missiles in flight.
In remarks at Georgetown Law School on Jan. 21, Petraeus said the U.S. now has eight Patriot missile batteries stationed in the Gulf region - two each in four countries. He did not name the countries, but Kuwait has long been known to have Patriots on its territory.
A military official said Saturday that the three other countries are the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain - which also hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet headquarters - and Qatar, home to a modernized U.S. air operations center that has played a key role in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In a presentation Jan. 22 at the Institute for the Study of War, Petraeus explicitly linked the actions to concerns about Iran.
"Iran is clearly seen as a very serious threat by those on the other side of the Gulf front, and, indeed, it has been a catalyst for the implementation of the architecture that we envision and have now been trying to implement," he said.
He said that "architecture" includes the extra Patriot batteries "that weren't there, say, two years ago."
"Other countries have certainly increased their Patriots, a whole host of different systems; Aegis ballistic missile cruisers are in the Gulf at all times now," Petraeus added.
The Aegis ships are equipped with a missile known as the SM-3, which gained international acclaim in February 2008 when a souped-up version was launched from a Navy cruiser in the Pacific and shot down a failing U.S. satellite in space.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates has spoken publicly about a new approach to missile defenses, both in Europe and the Gulf.
"I don't want to get into it in too much detail," Gates said in September, "but the reality is we are working both on a bilateral and a multilateral basis in the Gulf to establish the same kind of regional missile defense that would protect our facilities out there as well as our friends and allies."
Gates said the adjusted approach is based in part on a belief by U.S. intelligence that Iran has not been progressing as fast as previously believed on development of a long-range ballistic missile, but is concentrating more heavily on short- and medium-range missiles of the sort that the Patriot and the Aegis systems are designed to defend against.