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Missile Defense As Bargaining Chip

Is there a deal in the works between the United States and Russia on missile defense?

The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported today, citing "sources close to the White House," that U.S. President Barack Obama sent a letter to Kremlin leader Dmitry Medvedev proposing a quid pro quo: Washington will scrap plans to build a missile defense system in Europe if Moscow helps the United States in curbing Iran's nuclear program.

The report, coming just days before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is due to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for talks in Geneva, naturally caught our attention.

A senior administration official told me that "a letter from President Obama was sent to President Medvedev, but we cannot comment on the specifics." The official reiterated the administration's position that it would pursue missile defense provided that it works, is cost effective, and depending on the nature of the threat.

The official added, however, that in general the United States is interested in reducing the level of the Iranian nuclear threat -- and one way to do this was through strategic diplomacy with Russia.

I have written here, here, and here, that missile defense is likely to become a bargaining chip as the Obama administration hits the reset button with Moscow.

As Steven Pifer, a former State Department official who is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me in a recent interview, the area the United States needs Russia's help most is with Iran:

One of the reasons to improve Russian-American relations is because you would hope for a more helpful Russian position on Iran We want to give the Iranians a very stark choice that says: Here are the good things that will happen if you make the right decision and give up enrichment, and here are all the bad things that will happen if you don't. One of the failures in American and Russian approaches to Iran over the last five to six years is that the Russians haven't put as many sticks on the table as they could and the Americans haven't put out as many carrots as possible.

We'll certainly be watching this very closely in the days, weeks, and months ahead.

-- Brian Whitmore

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The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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