- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 3, 2009

President 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 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 Bush administration. There have been indications Mr. Obama, who has vowed to shake up American foreign policy, might be willing to set aside the missile defense system.

Mr. Medvedev said he had talked with Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

Mr. Medvedev said Russia was encouraged by the Obama 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,” Mr. 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 told the Associated Press earlier that the suggestion in Mr. Obama’s letter to Mr. Medvedev was that the need for a missile defense deployment “could become unnecessary if, working together with Russia, the Iran missile threat is addressed.”

Mr. Obama and Mr. 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 previously has 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,” Mrs. Clinton said. “But we have a broader agenda to discuss with the Russians, and we are going to be starting that on Friday.”

A key U.S. lawmaker said Tuesday that Mr. Obama should keep open the possibility of engaging Iran directly, as Mr. Obama has said he would do. Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and the ranking minority member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration should consider the possibility of establishing a U.S. visa office or similar diplomatic presence in Iran.

“Such an outpost would facilitate more exchange and outreach with the Iranian people,” Mr. Lugar said.

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

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