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U.S. Offers To Abandon Missile-Defense Plans

  • Brian Whitmore

A U.S. defensive missile launches from the Pacific Missile Range in 2008

A U.S. defensive missile launches from the Pacific Missile Range in 2008

U.S. President Barack Obama has written a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting that a missile-defense system Washington is planning to build in Europe will become unnecessary if Moscow helps curb Iran's nuclear program.

Senior U.S. administration officials said the letter was hand-delivered to the Kremlin leader three weeks ago. It was first made public in a report in the Russian daily "Kommersant" on March 2.

"What I said in the letter was that obviously to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for or the need for a missile-defense system," Obama said at a news conference in Washington with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on March 3.

Obama added that the letter did not offer "some sort of quid pro quo" but was "was simply a statement of fact that I've made previously."

News that a possible deal involving missile defense and Iran -- two of the main irritants in Russian-American relations during the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush -- came just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Geneva.

Speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on March 3, Clinton said she would have a "broad agenda to discuss" in her March 6 meeting with Lavrov, and that Iran and missile defense were both high priorities.

"We intend to do all that we can to deter and prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons," Clinton said. "That is our stated policy; that is the goal of any tactic that we employ."

Clinton did not provide any information or details about a deal being in the works.

Speaking at a press conference the same day in Madrid with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Russian President Medvedev said he hoped the "positive signals that we have received from Washington will be embodied in agreements."

Medvedev added that Russia is working closely with the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue, but he denied that a tit-for-tat deal trading in missile defense for cooperation on Iran was in the works.

"Nobody is setting conditions for any trade-offs, especially on the Iranian issue," Medvedev said. "We are already working in close contact with our American colleagues on the Iranian nuclear issue."

'No Quid Pro Quo'

A senior U.S. administration official confirmed to RFE/RL on March 2 that "a letter from President Obama was sent to President Medvedev." The official would not comment on the letter's specific contents, but said that Washington would welcome Moscow's help in curbing the Iranian nuclear program.

"One way to reduce the level of the [Iranian nuclear] threat is through a strategic dialogue with Russia," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. The official added that the United States was prepared to consult with Russia about "alternative missile-defense configurations."

"The New York Times," also citing senior U.S. administration officials, reported that the letter was not an offer of a direct quid pro quo but rather an attempt to provide Moscow with an incentive to work together with Washington in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue.

The latest report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) says Iran now possesses 1,010 kilograms of low-enriched uranium. The report raised concerns that Iran now has enough uranium, and the means to enrich it further, to produce nuclear fuel and the fissile core for nuclear warheads.

Washington has long sought Moscow's help in curbing Iran's nuclear program, which it alleges is aimed at obtaining nuclear weapons. Tehran has consistently rejected the charge.

Russia is a veto-wielding member of the UN Security Council and its vote there is essential in imposing tough sanctions against Tehran. Russia also has extensive commercial contacts with Iran, particularly in the nuclear sector, that can be used as leverage if Moscow so chooses.

The United States has long been critical of Russia for helping Iran build the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southwestern Iran, arguing that it could be used as a cover for a weapons program.

Devil In The Details

Analysts say such commercial contacts could make Moscow reluctant to lean on Iran.

Yevgeny Volk, director of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, said the "devil will be in the details" of any agreement that could limit Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran.

"Nuclear cooperation with Iran is very profitable for Russia both politically and economically," Volk said. "Russian participation in Iran's nuclear program provides a livelihood for many people in the Russian nuclear industry who are concerned about the crisis. And politically, Russia is interested in political cooperation with Iran in order to limit American influence in Central Asia."

The U.S. plan to install a radar facility in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland was a signature project of the administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush, who argued it was necessary to counter a growing Iranian nuclear threat.

Moscow staunchly opposed a deployment so close to its borders, arguing that it constituted a threat to Moscow's security.

Obama has repeatedly said he plans to continue the missile defense project, provided that it is proven to actually work and is cost-effective. A senior administration official told RFE/RL that the plans could be altered "depending on the nature of the threat."

Analysts said this left the administration sufficient flexibility to cut a deal with Russia when such an agreement would be advantageous to U.S. interests.
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