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September 17, 2009

Q&A: Stanford’s David Holloway on Obama’s missile defense plan

President Obama’s announcement Thursday of the decision to drop a planned missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic follows the recommendations of a recent report written in part by Stanford researchers David Holloway and Siegfried Hecker.

Written by American and Russian experts, Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Potential concludes there is no immediate threat of an intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile being launched by Iran. The EastWest Institute, a global think tank, published the report in May.

A separate report with similar conclusions based on the work of Stanford physicist Dean Wilkening also influenced Obama’s decision to reverse the Bush administration’s approach to missile defense.

In an interview with the Stanford News Service, Holloway discussed his findings and how Obama’s decision will affect global security and international relations.

Holloway is a professor of international history, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute and a faculty member of the Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Q. If there’s no imminent threat from Iranian IRBMs or ICBMs, what nuclear missile capability does the country have?

A. We think the more immediate danger comes from the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons against targets in the Middle East. That’s where the emphasis on defense should focus. We concluded the administration should suspend missile defense deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic and focus more on dealing with short-range and medium-range weapons. There have also been doubts about the technical feasibility and reliability of the missile defense system that was planned to deploy. My own view is that this is a more realistic way to approach missile defense – focus on the more imminent threat.

Q. Is there new intelligence information influencing Obama’s decision, or is the move based on politics and a new approach to international relations?

A. It looks to me like a little of both. The information isn’t drastically different. It was always a controversial decision in the United States as well as internationally whether to go ahead with a defense system. The Russians made a very forceful argument that this was directed at them. I think there’s been a reassessment by the Obama administration of what it wants to achieve in its foreign policy. It set out to reset its relationship with Russia, and missile defense has been a real irritant to the relationship. But Obama is also saying we’ve updated our intelligence assessment, which emphasizes the threat posed by Iran’s short- and medium-range missiles.

Q. Will this put more pressure on Russia to help the U.S. curb Iran’s nuclear program?

A. It should make it easier for them. What the report shows is that the Russians take the nuclear and missile threat from Iran very seriously. But we’ll have to wait and see if Russia will be more willing to cooperate with us in trying to constrain Iran’s nuclear program.

Q. What intelligence and information was your report based on?

A. On the nuclear side, we took a lot from reports done by the IAEA (the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency) and the inspectors going in to see what the Iranians are doing. From the missile side, we analyzed videos of Iranian missile tests. We put that in the context of what technology they have and what technology they need to develop longer-range missiles.



Adam Gorlick, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


David Holloway, SISAC: (650) 723-1737,

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