Obama sought Russian deal in Secret Letter

March 3, 2009 6:20:44 AM PST
President Barack Obama has written to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting U.S. plans for a missile defense system in Eastern Europe might be unnecessary if Moscow helped in blocking Iran's progress toward building long-range missiles, senior administration officials said on Tuesday. Plans for deploying U.S. missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic, ostensibly to guard against Iranian attacks on U.S. allies in Europe, are among a host of issues that soured U.S.-Russia relations during the former Bush administration. There have been indications Obama, who has vowed to shake up American foreign policy, might be willing to set aside the missile defense system.

Medvedev said he had talked with Obama over the phone and exchanged letters with him, but added that there was "no talk about some kind of trade-off, or quid pro quo."

"No, issues haven't been put that way, it would be unproductive," he said at a news conference Tuesday, which followed talks in Madrid with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.

Medvedev reaffirmed a strong opposition to the previous U.S. administration's plan to deploy a battery of missile interceptors in Poland and a related radar in the Czech Republic, saying the move would hurt security in Europe.

Medvedev said that Russia was encouraged by Obama's administration's readiness to discuss Moscow's complaints.

"Our American partners are ready to discuss this problem, and that's already positive," he said at a news conference. "Several months ago we were hearing different signals: The decision has been made, there is nothing to discuss, we will do what we have decided to do."

"Now I hope the situation is different," Medvedev added. "But no one is linking these issues to some kind of trade-offs, particularly on the Iranian issue. We are already working in close contact with our U.S. counterparts on the Iranian nuclear issue."

A senior U.S. official had told The AP earlier that the suggestion in Obama's letter to Medvedev was that the need for a missile defense deployment "could become unnecessary if, working together with Russia, the Iran missile threat is addressed."

Obama and Medvedev are expected to meet at the G-20 economic summit of advanced and developing nations in London next month, according to the officials.

They also emphasized that "we will continue to consult with the Czechs and Poles as we move forward with decisions on missile defense." That message was an obvious attempt to ease fears among those two U.S. allies - former Soviet satellite states - who are deeply invested in the missile defense system as an assurance of American backing against a resurgent Russia.

The administration has previously hinted that the policy on the missile defense shield that former President George W. Bush fiercely advocated was open to reassessment.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at a news conference in Jerusalem while on a Mideast tour, said that "we are at the beginning of the engagement with Russia on behalf of this new government."

"We have a very broad agenda also, what we have said specifically in regard to missile defense in Europe is that it has always been intended to deter any missiles that might come from Iran," she said.

"That's been our position, that was our position previously. It remains our position. We have explained that to the Russians before. When I say 'we,' I mean the American government and we continue to believe that we have to take all steps necessary to protect ourselves, our friends, our allies from a potential aggressive action in the future from Iran," Clinton said. "But we have a broader agenda to discuss with the Russians and we are going to be starting that on Friday."

The Obama letter was first reported in Tuesday's editions of The New York Times.

On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov urged the United States to restore diplomatic relations with Iran, Russian news agencies reported. "This would be an important element in stabilizing the situation in the region," he said.

Lavrov is scheduled to hold talks with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Geneva on Friday in the highest-level meeting between the two nations since Obama took office.

At a February gathering of NATO defense chiefs in Krakow, Poland, Gates said that Washington would review the missile plan "in the context of our relationship with both Poland and the Czech Republic" as well as with NATO and Russia. The language marked a departure from the tone of the Bush administration, which enthusiastically promoted the plan and signed deals last year with Warsaw and Prague.

Gates said that if Moscow really wants to stop the missile shield, it should help eliminate the threat of a missile attack from Iran.

The Obama administration has been vocal about its desire to repair rifts between the U.S. and Russia. In Munich last month, Vice President Joe Biden told a gathering of world leaders, "It's time to press the reset button and to revisit the many areas where we can and should be working together with Russia."

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