Monday, March 23, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - 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.-Russian 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, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told a defense conference in Washington.

But Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., 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 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, 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 Barack Obama might offer to scrap that plan in return for Russian help in persuading Iran to end its nuclear program.

Instead Levin argued for the start of U.S.-Russian 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,” Levin said. “Iran would face in a dramatic way a growing unity against her pursuit of dangerous nuclear technology.”

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.

Iran is “a ways away” from acquiring longer-range missiles that could hit the U.S. and Europe, Tauscher said.

Levin cited two matters the United States and Russia could take up immediately: a previous Russian offer to share data from an early warning radar in Azerbaijan, on Iran’s northern border, and a never-executed U.S.-Russian agreement to open a facility in Moscow for sharing missile-related data.

“We have a new opportunity to seek a cooperative approach with Russia on missile defense, and we should seize it,” Levin said. “The upside potential of such an effort is huge _ a geopolitical game changer.”

Speaking at the same conference, Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said those who develop U.S. missile defenses must take into account the fact that adversaries are increasingly likely to use means other than traditional ballistic missiles in any attack on U.S. interests.

“Ballistic missiles are about as passe as e-mail,” Cartwright said. “Nobody does it anymore.”

Instead the emerging threat is missiles that can be maneuvered in flight and missiles that remain inside Earth’s atmosphere, Cartwright said.

Missile defenses must be flexible and adaptable enough to be useful against a range of threats, he added.

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