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U.S.-Russia talks to focus on missile defense

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Missile defense will be at the center of a new set of security talks between Washington and Moscow and could become “a positive political tool” rather than an impediment to better U.S.-Russia relations, a leading Senate Democrat said Monday.

If the U.S. and Russia set aside differences on missile defense and began cooperating against Iran they could make a decisive difference in weakening Iran as a missile threat, Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a defense conference in Washington.

But Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, California Democrat, who is expected to be nominated soon as arms control chief at the State Department, told the conference that the threat of a future Iranian long-range missile is not a sufficient reason to build the U.S. missile defense in Europe as proposed by the George W. Bush administration.

Russia strongly opposes a plan crafted by the Bush administration - now under review by the Obama administration - to place U.S. missile interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic. The stated purpose is to defend Europe against an anticipated Iranian long-range missile threat.

Notably, Mr. Levin did not suggest that the Obama administration bargain away the Bush-era plan for extending U.S. missile defenses to Eastern Europe. There has been speculation that President Obama might offer to scrap that plan in return for Russian help in persuading Iran to end its nuclear program.

Instead Mr. Levin argued for the start of U.S.-Russia cooperation on defenses against Iranian missiles.

“Even if we were simply to begin serious discussions on the subject, (it) would send a powerful signal to Iran,” Mr. Levin said. “Iran would face in a dramatic way a growing unity against her pursuit of dangerous nuclear technology.”

Mrs. Tauscher cautioned that the old Bush-proposed system would provide “little, if any” protection for countries that are vulnerable to Iran's existing arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles, which she described as the largest in the Middle East.