- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 4, 2009

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s president seemed open Tuesday to discussing a U.S. plan to cancel an anti-missile system in Europe if Russia helps prevent Iran from developing long-range weapons, a proposal that could snugly fit the Kremlin’s strategic objectives.

Such a deal would scrap a missile defense system proposed by the Bush administration that Moscow always has suspected was pointed at Russia’s strategic capability, and at the same time blunt what the Kremlin may regard as a growing threat from Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

While President Dmitry Medvedev didn’t commit Russia to the idea, presented in a letter from President Barack Obama three weeks ago, he sounded positive in his first public comments Tuesday after the letter’s existence was reported by several publications.

“Our American partners are ready to discuss this problem, and that’s already positive,” he said at a news conference while visiting Spain. “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 said Moscow shares U.S. concerns about Iran and nuclear proliferation. He denied, however, that Obama’s letter laid out a straight deal trading abandonment of the U.S. missile system for Russian pressure on Iran.

“No one is linking these issues to some kind of trade-offs, particularly on the Iranian issue,” he said. “We are already working in close contact with our U.S. counterparts on the Iranian nuclear issue.”

Cancellation of the U.S. plan to install 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a related radar installation in the Czech Republic would be celebrated by Moscow, which has repeatedly threatened to target its missiles on European targets if the system is built.

The U.S. has said the proposed system is intended to address the threat that Iran could pose if it developed long-range missiles. Russia insists it is really aimed at Moscow’s arsenal of strategic missiles and would upset the balance of nuclear forces.

Working out some sort of agreement would help repair relations between the U.S. and Russia, which slumped to their lowest point in the post-Soviet era after the Russian-Georgian war last August.

Still, any agreement by the Kremlin to help raise pressure on Iran would also stir up trouble.

It could open a deep rift between Moscow and Tehran, a key market for Russian arms and technology. And a Russia-U.S. understanding on Iran would weaken the Kremlin’s effort to portray itself as a counterweight to the U.S., which Russia has used to build closer relations with Venezuela, Nicaragua and other nations in the anti-Washington camp.

Russia also has extensive trade with Iran it might not want to jeopardize, although its role as a major supplier of military hardware would give Moscow far more leverage in pressuring Tehran than most other nations.

Experts say the differences between the U.S. and Russia on dealing with Iran aren’t just tactical. Moscow, many say, holds a fundamentally different view of Iran’s role seeing Tehran as a guarantor of stability in the Middle East, while the U.S. and its allies regard it as a source of instability and sponsor of terrorism.

But Alexander Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Assessment, said the Kremlin’s view may be changing. He said Russia is increasingly worried by Iran’s growing uranium-enrichment program and its recent launch of an orbiting satellite, demonstrating the capabilities of its rocket technology.

Moscow may have decided it needs to move closer to Washington’s position to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear arsenal, Konovalov said. “Facing a prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran on its border, Moscow may toughen its stance,” he said.

Anton Khlopkov, a leading expert on Iran at the PIR Center, an independent Moscow think tank specializing in nuclear issues, disagreed. He said Russia might at most agree to mediate talks between the U.S. and Iran.

The Kremlin would not try to pressure Tehran by sacrificing a major project like the Bushehr nuclear power station it has helped build, Khlopkov said. “The Bushehr project is important for Russia’s prestige and it will work to finalize it,” he said.

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