- The Washington Times - Friday, September 18, 2009

The Obama administration Thursday implemented a seismic shift in U.S. security strategy, abandoning its predecessor’s plan for ground-based missile defenses in Eastern Europe and possibly improving the prospects for a new nuclear arms reduction agreement with Russia.

The White House said the decision had nothing to do with Russia - which saw the old missile-defense plan slated for Poland and the Czech Republic as aimed at it, not Iran - and everything to do with a new intelligence estimate that shows Iran producing large numbers of short- and midrange missiles instead of longer-range ballistic systems.

“This is not about Russia,” said White House press secretary Robert Gibbs.

President Obama said, however, that he “welcome* Russia’s cooperation” on missile defense going forward.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev praised the U.S. decision, calling it a “responsible move,” the Associated Press reported.

Speaking on state-run TV, Mr. Medvedev said he and Mr. Obama had discussed the issue of missile proliferation in their meetings earlier this year in London and Moscow and had agreed to work together to reduce that risk.

“The announcement made today in Washington shows that the conditions for such work are not bad,” Mr. Medvedev said.

“We appreciate this responsible move by the U.S. president toward realizing our agreement,” he said. “I am prepared to continue the dialogue.”

U.S. officials said they would instead use Patriot missiles and newly developed SM-3 missiles that intercept enemy launches before an offensive missile enters the atmosphere to contend with an Iranian threat. The latter system would be deployed initially on U.S. ships in the Mediterranean, not in Russia’s old area of influence in Eastern Europe.

Analysts focused on the impact the decision may have on negotiations with Russia next week in New York over reducing nuclear arms stockpiles. Both governments have said they hope for a deal by December.

“With the missile-defense issue removed from center stage, both sides now have to get serious about numbers [of warheads],” said Toby Gati, a key adviser on Russia to President Clinton. “There should now be, if not a green light, then a strong yellow light to negotiate a new arms reduction agreement.”

The president’s decision to scrap plans crafted under President George W. Bush in exchange for what Mr. Obama called a “stronger, smarter and swifter” system coincided with the proposed sale of Patriot missiles to Turkey, a NATO ally that borders Iran.

The White House last week notified Congress of the proposed sale of $7.8 billion worth of anti-missile Patriot Pac-3 batteries to Ankara. That has set off speculation that Turkey will be part of the new Washington strategy.

“Maybe there’s no connection, but there’s a lot of speculation within Turkey that there is a connection,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. He visited Turkey a week ago.

The Patriot missiles, however, can defend against incoming missiles only when the projectile is near its target.

A move by Ankara to take part in a U.S.-led effort against Tehran might be considered provocative by Iran.

(Corrected paragraph:) “Turkey is not enthusiastic about irritating Iran. It’s nonsensical that they would buy these weapons for such a reason,” said Cengiz Candar, a Middle East analyst.

Nonetheless, if Turkey buys Patriots - the Turks reportedly are entertaining bids from the Russians and Chinese for similar weapons - that might make them a first line of defense against any launch from Iran.

Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said: “The Patriots are better suited to deal with what Iran is actually doing.”

The U.S. decision also could affect Russia’s decision to sell anti-missile defenses to Iran and to back sanctions against Iran over its missile program.

The Obama administration is preparing for its first talks with the Iranian regime Oct. 1. The meeting will include senior officials from the other veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council - Russia, China, France and Britain - as well as Germany and the European Union.

Proliferation analysts say Iran is close to having enough low-enriched uranium to convert to fuel for a weapon. The Associated Press reported Thursday that Iran has the technical knowledge to make a weapon and is trying to acquire the ability to weaponize a nuclear device by putting it on a missile, according to a report by the International Atomic Energy Agency. French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday that his country’s intelligence also shows that Tehran is working on a nuclear bomb. Iran denies that its program has a military dimension.

Mrs. Gati, who returned from a trip to Russia this week, said that while in Moscow she heard several times that the Russians “are floating the idea of a joint guarantee for Israel” from the U.S. and Russia “as a response if the Iranians were to attack them.”

Israel considers a nuclear-armed Iran a grave threat, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to Moscow last week to seek Russian cooperation in stopping Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and to lobby against the Russian sale of missile defenses to Iran.

Mr. Obama said that his missile-defense decision was “no substitute for Iran complying with its international obligations regarding its nuclear program.”

“We, along with our allies and partners, will continue to pursue strong diplomacy to ensure that Iran lives up to these international obligations,” he said.

The change in strategy was condemned by some who said Mr. Obama was abandoning European countries who have looked to the U.S. to counter future Russian aggression.

Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who ran against Mr. Obama for the presidency, called the administration’s decision “seriously misguided.”

“This decision calls into question the security and diplomatic commitments the United States has made to Poland and the Czech Republic, and has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe,” Mr. McCain said.

He said the move would embolden the Kremlin “at a time when Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who was a key adviser to Mr. Bush in creating the previous missile-defense plan, said that “this new approach provides a better missile-defense capability … than the program I recommended almost three years ago.”

Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters that the focus would be on SM-3 missiles. All of Europe could be defended with three SM-3 installations, he said.

Mr. Gates said that the first SM-3 systems will be deployed on ships and by 2015 the military hopes to have established land-based SM-3 installations.

A senior White House official said that the locations for those land-based systems “haven’t been picked yet.”

Mr. Gates said that a Pentagon representative visited Poland and the Czech Republic and that both countries were being consulted about hosting the new missile-defense system. He slammed those who charged the administration with abandoning missile defense, and also said that the Russians would “probably not … be pleased that we are continuing with missile-defense efforts in Europe.”

“But at the same time, there are two changes in this architecture that should allay some of their, what we think, unfounded concerns,” he said.

The Russians were notified Thursday of the U.S. change in strategy. Gen. James L. Jones, Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, informed Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak of the new direction during a meeting at the White House that took place as Mr. Obama was making a televised statement about the change in the White House Diplomatic Room.

Iason Athanasiadis in London, and Barbara Slavin, Bill Gertz, Sara Carter and S.A. Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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