W hen North Korea began fueling its Taepodong-2 missile for a launch toward North America, the United States activated its missile defenses in Alaska and California.

But what about Iran? If the endless talks go nowhere and a few years from now a nuclear-armed Iran prepares to launch a missile into space with enough range to reach Europe or the United States, what defenses would be put on alert?

The interceptors in Alaska and California could do little to protect either Europe or the U.S. East Coast, but interceptors in Europe could. Yet the U.S. House cut funds needed to begin establishing a European missile defense site.

This move should be reversed.

The main threat is the radical theocracy in Iran that appears determined to develop both nuclear weapons and longer-range missiles. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced in April that Iran had enriched uranium to reactor-grade levels and is working on an advanced centrifuge, strengthening the view that Iran has an extensive covert program to develop an atomic bomb.

With nuclear technology from the ring run by Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, missile technology from North Korea and oil revenue to pay the bills, Tehran is following North Korea’s lead in creating a nuclear missile threat. This is worrisome because Iran’s radical regime is spreading an apocalyptic vision of Islam while threatening to wipe Israel off the map. Negotiations and deterrence theory may not work with leaders who consider suicide their highest goal.

Iran has been buying and developing ballistic missiles since its war with Iraq in the mid-1980s, first purchasing Scuds, and then buying North Korean technology and producing its own longer-range models. Iran’s longest-range missile currently operational is the Shahab-3, which is based on the North Korean Nodong. Now in production, it has a range of 1,300 kilometers and can reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.

Under development is the Shahab-3ER with a range of 2,000 kilometers, and a solid-fuel multistage missile believed to have a range of 3,500 kilometers, enough to reach Berlin and NATO bases in Europe. With the addition of booster rockets, such a weapon could go well into space and even threaten the eastern United States.

Since Iran has been following the example of North Korea, it probably will do what Pyongyang did and call its long-range missile a space-launch vehicle. These extended-range missiles may be just a few years away. In the hands of the religious fanatics running Iran, they would be a serious threat to the West, especially if nuclear-armed.

Washington proposes to defend against this threat by building a missile defense site in Europe. Various locations have been considered, but Poland is most likely. The planned interceptors there could reach into space and protect all of Europe as well as the U.S. East Coast against a missile launched from the Middle East. Also, it would cement U.S. relations with Poland’s pro-American conservative government.

Moscow, which sees Poland as part of its lost empire, objects to the plan and Russian generals complain that the real goal is to threaten their ballistic missiles and diminish their nuclear deterrent. This is laughable. Russia has hundreds of missiles and thousands of warheads in a nuclear triad, which would hardly be affected by 10 interceptors.

Besides, a base in Poland would not be a good location to defend against Russian intercontinental missiles, which launch more toward the North Pole than Europe.

The purpose of a Polish site is to defend against threats from the Middle East. In addition to Iran, terrorists could acquire such weapons and today’s friendly governments could change. Islamic fundamentalists seek to overthrow the governments of Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan, where A.Q. Khan ran his nuclear arms bazaar, already has nuclear weapons and medium-range missiles that could fall into the hands of the Muslim fanatics who keep trying to assassinate President Pervez Musharraf . And Pakistan says it will keep up with India, which just tested its intermediate-range Agni III and has plans for an intercontinental-range missile.

The U.S. plan is to build a missile defense site in Poland like the one in Alaska, but with 10 interceptors instead of 40. The Missile Defense Agency asked Congress for $56 million in the 2007 budget to do the architecture and engineering work and begin clearing the site, and $63 million for the interceptors. In the context of a missile defense budget of more than $10 billion, these amounts are small.

If work starts next year, the site could be operational by 2011. But considering Iran’s determination to develop longer-range missiles and nuclear weapons, it should be expedited as much as possible. Yet the House cut the funds, saying nothing should be done in Europe until the site in Alaska has undergone complete testing.

This is ridiculous. If that had been done in Alaska there would be no defense today against North Korean missiles. A site in Europe is essential for the defense of both the eastern United States and our bases and allies in Europe.

The Senate has approved the initial funds for a site in Europe. In the wake of the North Korean launches, the administration should accelerate its plans for a European site and the House should defer to the Senate in conference to get this project under way.

James Hackett is a former arms control official who writes on national security issues from Carlsbad, Calif.