PRAGUE (RFE/RL) -- U.S. President Barack Obama has announced that his administration is amending plans for a missile-defense system in Eastern Europe that had been a thorn in its relations with Moscow.
Speaking in Washington, Obama said he was giving up existing plans for radar and missile-interceptor bases in Poland and the Czech Republic based on a "unanimous recommendation" from his top military and defense advisers.
In its place, he said, the United States will move ahead with an alternate plan for protecting U.S. allies against threats from what he called Iran's "ongoing" ballistic-missile defense program.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev initially welcomed the decision, adding that he would discuss missile defense during his U.S. visit next week for a UN address and a G-20 summit, according to Reuters. He added that Moscow wanted to maintain dialogue with Washington.
"Our new missile-defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said.
"It is more comprehensive than the previous program. It deploys capabilities that are proven and cost-effective. And it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the U.S. homeland against long-range ballistic missile threats. And it ensures and enhances the protection of all our NATO allies."Not 'Scrapping Missile Defense'
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, in a news conference following Obama's statement, gave details about the new plan, which he said was based on intelligence assessments that Iran's short- and medium-range missiles now pose a greater threat than intercontinental ballistic missiles.
In response to the new assessment, Gates said the U.S. would deploy ships with missile interceptors to defend European allies and U.S. forces against immediate threats.
Gates also said that land-based defense systems were still slated for Eastern Europe, although they would become operational as late as 2015.
"The second phase, about 2015, will involve fielding upgraded, land-based SM-3 [defensive missiles]," Gates said. "Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting a land-based version of the SM-3 and other components of the system."
Gates added that "those who say we are scrapping missile defense in Europe are either misinformed or misrepresenting the reality of what we are doing."
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said after the news of the overhaul that the United States would move ahead with plans to deploy an armed Patriot battery on Polish territory, according to Reuters.
The Patriot, a mobile missile system, has proven accuracy in shooting down incoming or overflying missiles. 'Beginning To Understand' Each Other?
"We will have a good opportunity to exchange views on all aspects of strategic stability, including antimissile defense," Medvedev said in a nationally televised address within hours of Obama's announcement.
"I believe that we will proceed with giving orders to the respective bodies in our two countries to step up cooperation, including on attracting European and other interested nations," Medvedev said.
"We will work together to forge efficient measures to counter the risks of missile proliferation, measures that would allow us to take into account the interests and concerns of all parties and ensure equal security for all the nations in the European arena."
Moscow had offered a tentative welcome to early-morning press reports the Obama administration was scrapping the original missile-defense plan. That plan, initiated by the administration of the previous U.S. president, George W. Bush, has been a major stumbling block
in bilateral relations.
Moscow long dismissed U.S. arguments that the plan was aimed against Iran, saying the program compromised its own security. The Kremlin's reaction may have also been based on its resentment of Washington's growing influence in a region it sees as its sphere of influence.
Speaking ahead of Obama's announcement, Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Russian State Duma, had welcomed the decision as it was characterized in Western media as a step in the right direction.
"The Bush administration didn't understand us at all, but as far as I can judge from today's decision, the Obama administration is beginning to understand us," Kosachyov said. "This is not yet the end. It is not complete harmony and absolute accord, but it is certainly a dialogue, and it is certainly an acceptance of Russia and its arguments as no less significant and serious than the [United States'] own national-security considerations."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, likewise speaking before Obama's announcement, expressed hope the U.S. decision would reflect Moscow's concerns about the missile-defense plan and take into consideration Russian proposals to work together to "neutralize and prevent the proliferation of missiles." Anxious Allies
The Obama administration had signaled early on that it was reevaluating the value of the Bush missile-defense plans.
Many policy-watchers saw the contentious issue as leverage that Obama could use to gain support from Moscow on other, more critical issues, such as Iran's nuclear program.
Washington has long sought Moscow's cooperation in pressuring Iran to give up its uranium-enrichment work, which the U.S. and other countries believe is destined for nuclear weapons.
The decision appeared to come as a blow to officials in the Czech Republic, who saw the original missile-defense plan as a show of U.S. willingness to stand up to Moscow's ire.
Early in the day, the Czech acting prime minister, Jan Fischer, announced he had received a call from Obama announcing his intention to give up the Czech antimissile radar system.
Former Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose government signed the missile-defense deal, spoke regretfully about the decision in comments to reporters in Prague.
"I think this is bad news, first of all, because after 20 years of our moving toward Euro-Atlantic structures and after we settled, very actively within these structures, this process is slowing down," Topolanek said. Regional Threats
News of the change had prompted speculation earlier in the day that any future antimissile system would be deployed further eastwards, or in mobile bases in Turkey or Israel.
Turkey is the only NATO country with a direct border to Iran. Last week, the Obama administration notified the U.S. Congress of a possible $8 billion sale of Patriot antimissile batteries to Turkey.
The Pentagon said last week that the proposed sale would help deter regional threats -- a veiled apparent reference to Iran.
However, the Turkish media have quoted diplomatic sources as dismissing the notion that the Patriots would have any role in regional deterrence, but would simply be part of Turkey's own national defenses.-- with additional agency reports