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United Arab Emirates Buys Patriot Missile Defenses

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

Just before the Bush administration leaves office, the United Arab Emirates has agreed to purchase a $3.3 billion missile-defense system from the U.S. U.S. officials also want the UAE to purchase another missile-defense system for more than twice that amount. As NPR's Peter Kenyon reports, they're hoping to deter the potential threat from Iran.

PETER KENYON: At a security conference in Bahrain this month, the sizable U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, discussed security and terrorism threats from Iraq to Afghanistan, to India and Pakistan. But a number of analysts at the conference got the impression that the Americans had one thing on their minds: a $7 billion dollar missile-defense deal with the UAE. Gates made sure to remind delegates of the threat from Iran.

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(Soundbite of speech, ISS Regional Security Summit: The Manama Dialogue, December 13, 2008)

Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense, George W. Bush Administration): Now, when it comes to Iran's missile programs, we all know that pictures can be deceiving. Even so, it is clear that Iran has, this year, tested long-range missiles that can hit any country in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran has continued its pursuit of a nuclear program that is almost assuredly geared toward developing nuclear weapons. The last thing this region, or the world, needs is a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.

KENYON: General David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, followed up with a five-point plan for enhancing security in the region. Near the top of the list: missile defense.

(Soundbite of speech, ISS Regional Security Summit: The Manama Dialogue, December 14, 2008)

General DAVID PETRAEUS (Commander, U.S. Central Command): First, in fact, we can expand existing bilateral air and missile-defense initiatives, and work toward true multilateral cooperation in this important defensive area. In addition, various bilateral active missile-defense measures underway are vital elements of regional deterrence and of defensive cooperation, and they should be expanded as well.

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KENYON: U.S. officials have been making the case for a Persian Gulf missile-defense system for several years now. As Gulf economies boomed in recent years, the argument took on a sharper edge: Invest in protection against Iranian missiles or risk losing the confidence of overseas investors. The UAE is considering buying the American terminal high-altitude area defense system. The missiles and launchers carry no warheads; they rely on the kinetic energy of the impact with an incoming missile to neutralize the threat. The key, of course, is hitting the income missile, and critics argue that so far, this system has a mixed record at best.

Another question is whether the creation of a successful missile-defense shield would generate a fresh arms race, as countries seek to improve their capacity to overcome a missile-defense system. Russia announced it would beef-up its missile arsenal, when Washington moved to install missile-defense components in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russian lawmaker Mikhail Margelov says Moscow is willing to work with Washington to deter any Iranian threat, but Russia remains uneasy with the missile-defense concept.

Mr. MIKHAIL MARGELOV (Chairman, Committee on Foreign Affairs, Federation Council of Russia): Missile defense, for us, it's a very bad illustration of Cold War mentality. We all remind (unintelligible) and cruise missiles, and for the Russian public, well, it's a very important to see that we are treated equally and the Cold War is over.

KENYON: Analysts say it's not clear when missile-defense technology will be a truly effective deterrent, but in the meantime, some note there is a lot of money to be made trying to make it so. Defense giants such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing all have significant stakes in missile defense and would love to see the Persian Gulf become the next theater for its implementation. Whether President-elect Barack Obama feels as passionately about missile-defense spending as President Bush, however, remains to be seen. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Bahrain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.