By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
President Obama has sent a letter to his Russian counterpart that raises the prospect of the United States halting development of its missile defense program in Eastern Europe if Russia helps resolve the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program, senior administration officials said last night.
Obama's letter, delivered to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in mid-February, "covered a number of topics" of mutual interest to the two countries, "including the issue of missile defense and how it relates to the Iranian threat," a senior administration official said. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter.
This official and others said the letter repeated an assertion Obama administration officials have voiced in recent weeks: The missile defense system would not be necessary if the threat posed by Iran's long-range missiles and its nuclear program was eliminated.
Russia has cooperated with Tehran on a range of issues and has often resisted Washington's tough stance toward Iran, which insists that its nuclear program is aimed at developing only cheap energy, not weapons.
Meanwhile, Russian leaders have been infuriated by U.S. plans for a missile base in Poland and radar deployment in the Czech Republic, saying that U.S.-run weapons installations so close to its border represent a threat to its national security. The Bush administration, which initiated the plans, had waved off the Russian displeasure, saying the system would protect Russia as well as NATO allies from the threat posed by Iranian missiles.
The Obama administration, however, sent signals that it intends to smooth relations with Russia. Speaking at a defense conference in Munich last month, Vice President Biden said the administration wants to "press the reset button" with Russia.
During a visit to Russia two weeks later, Undersecretary of State William J. Burns suggested that Moscow's cooperation in eliminating the threat posed by Iran's nuclear program could result in the idea of missile defense being shelved.
"If, through strong diplomacy with Russia and our other partners, we can reduce or eliminate that threat, it obviously shapes the way at which we look at missile defense. We are also open to the possibility of cooperation with Russia and with our NATO partners on new missile defense configurations which can take advantage of assets which each of us have," Burns said in an interview with the Russian news agency Interfax.
And Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last month in Krakow, Poland, "I told the Russians a year ago that if there were no Iranian missile program, there would be no need for the missile sites."
Administration officials said Russia has not responded to the letter on missile defense, details of which were first reported yesterday by the Russian newspaper Kommersant. But Obama is scheduled to meet with Medvedev early next month in London, on the sidelines of a summit of the Group of 20 industrialized and developing nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is scheduled to meet Saturday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Geneva.
Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried noted last week that, in advance of the meeting, "There have been letters between the leaders, between the foreign ministers, outlining a way forward and a positive agenda, and it is on that that we want to build."
The U.S. overtures seem to be well received by Medvedev, who told Spanish reporters on Sunday that he expected the new administration to approach the issue of missile defense "in a more inventive and partnership-like" manner.
"We have already received such messages from our American colleagues," Medvedev was quoted as saying. "I expect those messages to take the form of specific proposals. I hope that during my first meeting with Mr. Obama, President of the United States, we shall be able to discuss" the issue.
Obama and Medvedev have exchanged several letters and phone calls over the past month. Kommersant reported that the letter that outlined possible cooperation on missile defense also raised other opportunities for cooperation, including on the Middle East, Afghanistan and arms control.
Correspondent Philip P. Pan in Moscow contributed to this report.