In secret letter, Obama offered deal to Russia

Posted in Russia , United States | 03-Mar-09 | Author: Peter Baker| Source: International Herald Tribune

U.S. President Barack Obama

WASHINGTON: President Barack Obama sent a secret letter to Russia's president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.

The letter to President Dmitri A. Medvedev was hand-delivered in Moscow by top administration officials three weeks ago. It said the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been vehemently opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.

The officials who described the contents of the message requested anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran. Russia's military, diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran give it some influence there, but it has often resisted Washington's hard line against Iran.

"It's almost saying to them, put up or shut up," said a senior administration official. "It's not that the Russians get to say, 'We'll try and therefore you have to suspend.' It says the threat has to go away."

Moscow has not responded, but a Russian official said Monday that Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov would have something to say on missile defense to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they meet Saturday in Geneva. Obama and Medvedev will then meet for the first time on April 2 in London, officials said Monday.

Obama's letter, sent in response to one he received from Medvedev shortly after Obama's inauguration, represents part of an effort to "press the reset button" on Russian-American relations, as Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. put it last month. Among other things, the letter discussed negotiations to extend a strategic arms treaty expiring this year and cooperation in opening supply routes to Afghanistan.

The plan to build a high-tech radar facility in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland ? a part of the world that Russia once considered its sphere of influence ? was a top priority for President George W. Bush to deter Iran in case it developed a nuclear warhead to fit atop its long-range missiles. Bush never accepted a Moscow proposal to install part of the missile defense system on its territory and jointly operate it so it could not be used against Russia.

Now the Obama administration appears to be reconsidering that idea, although it is not clear if it would want to put part of the system on Russian soil where it could be flipped on or off by Russians. Obama has been lukewarm on missile defense, saying he supports it only if it can be proved technically effective and affordable.

Bush also emphasized the linkage between the Iranian threat and missile defense, but Obama's overture reformulates it in a way designed to appeal to the Russians, who long ago soured on the Bush administration. Officials have been hinting at the possibility of an agreement in recent weeks, and Obama's proposal was reported on Monday by a Moscow newspaper, Kommersant.

"If through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense," Under Secretary of State William Burns said about the Iranian threat in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax while in Moscow last month delivering Obama's letter.

During a NATO meeting in Krakow, Poland, on Feb. 19, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said: "I told the Russians a year ago that if there were no Iranian missile program, there would be no need for the missile sites." Obama's inauguration, he added, offered the chance for a fresh start. "My hope is that now, with the new administration, the prospects for that kind of cooperation might have improved," Gates said.

The idea has distressed Poland and the Czech Republic, where leaders invested political capital in signing missile defense cooperation treaties with the United States despite domestic opposition. If the United States were to slow or halt deployment of missile defense systems, Warsaw and Prague might insist on other incentives.

For example, the deal with Poland included a side agreement that an American Patriot air defense battery would be moved from Germany to Poland, where it would be operated by a crew of about 100 American military personnel. The administration might have to proceed with that to reassure Warsaw.

Missile defense has flavored Obama's relationship with Russia from the day after his election, when Medvedev threatened to point missiles at Europe if the system proceeded. He later backed off that threat and it seems that Moscow is taking seriously the idea floated in Obama's letter. Kommersant, the Moscow newspaper, on Monday called it a "sensational proposal."

Medvedev hinted Sunday at the possibility of agreement. "We have received signals from our American colleagues," he told the Spanish media, according to the state news agency, RIA Novosti. "I expect those signals will turn into specific proposals. I hope to discuss the issue, which is extremely important for Europe, with President Barack Obama."