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Russia Still Suspicious Of U.S. Missile Defense Plans

Russia's NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin

Russia's NATO Ambassador Dmitry Rogozin

MOSCOW, Sept 29 (Reuters) - Russia remains suspicious about Washington's new antimissile plans and fears its strategic nuclear weapons could still be threatened by the reconfigured scheme, the country's envoy to NATO said.

Dmitry Rogozin's comments showed Moscow's distrust as it awaits details on Pentagon plans to create new mobile interceptor missiles, dropping an earlier U.S. scheme to set up fixed bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

"Where are the guarantees that this mobile thing, be it a boat, a cruiser, or a battleship with a mounted missile-defense system and with missile interceptors, will not sail into our northern seas?" Rogozin said at a press briefing.

Russia opposed the original U.S. plans because it did not believe assurances from Washington that they were directed at future missile launches from countries like Iran. It feared the scheme would target its own arsenal, upsetting the strategic nuclear weapons balance in Europe.

Rogozin said Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev gave a guarded welcome to U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to alter the earlier Bush administration plan. But he said Moscow needed assurances it was not still the target.

Under Obama's new plan, the United States would initially deploy ships with missile interceptors and in a second phase would field land-based defense systems.

A former politician, Rogozin is based in Brussels, where he represents Russia's interests at NATO headquarters, but is considered well-connected within Moscow's power structures.

The Pentagon says it only wants to target small and medium-range missiles from other countries, but Moscow needs convincing the system will not threaten the 3,000-plus Russian strategic warheads still pointing at U.S. and NATO countries.

Russia would be concerned if the new sea-based interceptors are based in Arctic waters, the North Sea, or the Baltic Sea, as this would imply that the trajectories of Russian ballistic missiles could be tracked.

"We need guarantees that the parameters of deploying these antimissile [interceptors] will in fact be restricted to small-and medium-range missiles and that they will not encroach on those territories that have serious heavy ground-based or submarine-launched ballistic missiles," Rogozin said.

The United States says the interceptors are intended to counter a potential threat from Iranian short- and medium-range missiles. U.S. intelligence now believes Iran is unlikely to have a long-range missile until between 2015 and 2020.

Also on September 29, Interfax news agency quoted a senior Russian diplomat as saying that Iran's recent missile tests do not boost the case for imposing sanctions on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Iran has test-fired a new round of missiles ahead of a meeting in Geneva between Iran and a six-member group including five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany on Tehran's nuclear program.

"I think...there is no question of using this fact to escalate debates on imposing sanctions," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last week backed Western pressure on Iran to give up military elements of its nuclear program by warning Tehran that "other means" could be used if the Geneva talks failed.

The test launches followed Iran's announcement last week it was building a second uranium enrichment plant, a move which raised fresh concerns about the goal of Tehran's nuclear program.

But Ryabkov admitted that the test launches could be used by proponents of sanctions at the Geneva talks to bolster their positions.

"In the atmosphere of acute political debates around the Iranian nuclear program, the test launches indeed add arguments for those who seek to start discussing additional sanctions," he said.

Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the UN Security Council, has backed three sets of mild sanctions against Iran in the U.N. Security Council. But it has so far blocked any strong measures against its ally.

Medvedev's remarks made after meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama were broadly interpreted by analysts as a sign of toughening of Russia's approach to Tehran.

However, on September 28 Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov urged restraint in reaction to the Iranian missile launches, although he said that they worried Russia.

Ryabkov welcomed Iran's proposals handed over to the six-member group earlier this month and treated skeptically by the Western powers.

"The Iranian proposals are broad enough," Ryabkov said. "They enhance a number of issues related to international security and more. There is a broad field for dialogue."