President Obama has told Russia that the United States might not proceed with a missile defense system in eastern Europe if Iran drops plans for producing nuclear weapons, senior administration officials said Tuesday.
Obama raised the possibility in a letter to Russia seeking help in trying to end Iran’s nuclear program, a senior administration official said. Contrary to news reports, it was not a secret letter, the official said. Obama told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the letter that the U.S. missile defense system in Russia’s backyard would not be necessary if Iran stopped it own ambitions to build nuclear warheads and long-range ballistic missiles, the officials said. The letter suggested Russia could have a role in reducing Iran’s nuclear threat, and therefore could dissuade the United States from going forward with its plans to establish a missile base in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic. See how missile defense works » Defense Secretary Robert Gates told the Russians last year that the United States didn’t need missiles in eastern Europe if there wasn’t an Iranian threat because the missiles are designed to deal with that type of threat or launch, a senior administration official said The officials said the letter was not a quid pro quo offer, but rather a way to present Russia with an incentive to cooperate with the United States in confronting Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. “It covered a broad range of topics, including missile defense and how it relates to the Iranian threat,” one official said. Watch Iran call concerns about its nuclear program unfounded » The Kremlin, reacting to reports about the letter, said there was no quid pro quo. A Kremlin spokesman told CNN the letter from Obama was a response to a letter from Medvedev, congratulating Obama on his inauguration and outlining important areas of relations — including Iran and missile defense — that should be tackled.
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Medvedev said the letter was positive, and that he appreciates the speed with which Obama responded, the spokesman said. But the spokesman also said the letter did not suggest a link between Russian assistance to limit Iran’s nuclear program and the plans to construct missile defense facilities in Eastern Europe. Obama administration officials also said the president wrote the letter in response to one from Medvedev; a senior U.S. diplomat hand-delivered it during a visit to Moscow three weeks ago, one official said. Ending the missile defense system, one official said, is not contingent on having Moscow’s help. Even if Moscow did help, he said, but was unsuccessful in stopping the Iranians from development, “the missile defense program goes through.” Watch why the U.S. thinks Iran can make a nuke » The official denied a report in The New York Times that the letter was “secret.” Calling The Times report “hyped,” the official said the letter was “widely distributed to U.S. agencies” after it was delivered, in an effort to keep those agencies informed and to help them coordinate policy. “It was extra-open,” the official said. “The notion of a secret letter,” he said, “is irritating. … It suggests a secret deal between Russia and the U.S.” which, he said, is not the case. The letter’s content reflects public statements by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. On February 10, in an appearance with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, Clinton signaled that the United States might rethink plans for a missile defense shield in Europe if Iran decides against pursuing nuclear weapons. “If we are able to see a change in behavior on the part of the Iranians, then we will reconsider where we stand, but we are a long, long way from seeing such evidence of any change in behavior,” Clinton said at the time.
Senior State Department officials acknowledged then that the Obama administration, in a shift from the policy of the Bush administration, was focusing on the Iranian threat in an effort to persuade Russia to help the United States counter it. Iran has denied it has a nuclear weapons program. It insists that its program is peaceful and intended to produce nuclear power for the Islamic republic.