Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev Offer Welcome Clarity on Iran and Missile Defense

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Wednesday, March 4, 2009

PROPONENTS of a diplomatic "grand bargain" between the Obama administration and Russia -- by which the United States would obtain Russian cooperation in stopping Iran's nuclear program in exchange for concessions to what Moscow sees as its security interests in Europe -- got a double drenching of cold water yesterday. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told a news conference that "any swaps" between action on Iran and a planned U.S. missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic "would not be productive." For his part, President Obama made clear that his administration's decisions on missile defense would be guided not by Russian behavior but by the threat from Iran.

As Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton prepares for her first official meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Saturday, these were revealing and important clarifications. Vice President Biden's call for a "reset" in U.S.-Russian relations and long-standing questions about the efficacy and cost of missile defense may have encouraged Russian expectations that the new administration could be bluffed into retreating from the deals struck by the Bush administration with Poland and the Czech Republic to deploy missile interceptors and a radar station. If undertaken as a concession to Russia, any such move would have the effect of undermining the bonds between former Soviet bloc members and the United States and NATO -- which, of course, is Moscow's aim.

That's why it was important for Mr. Obama to say yesterday that his willingness to reconsider missile defense would be based on judgments about Iran, not about Russia -- and that any decision made in that context does not diminish "my commitment to making sure that Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members are fully enjoying the partnership, the alliance and U.S. support with respect to their security." One way to back up that principle is for the administration to make clear in public -- as it has in private -- that deployment of a U.S. Patriot missile defense battery to Poland, promised by the Bush administration, will go ahead regardless of what is ultimately decided about the larger missile defense system.

Such a statement might be somewhat out of sync with the honeymoonish tone of much of the public rhetoric between Moscow and Washington since Mr. Obama's inauguration. But as Mr. Medvedev made clear yesterday, so far there isn't much substance behind the cheery facade. He declared that Russia, which is about to complete a nuclear power plant for Iran and has repeatedly opposed tough sanctions, is "already working in close contact" with the United States on Iran. In other words, while Russia expects the new administration to "show common sense" on missile defense by proposing something that "would be acceptable to us," it shouldn't expect more help stopping an Iranian bomb. Perhaps the Kremlin leadership believes that "reset" is another way of saying "capitulate." If so, Ms. Clinton would do well to clarify the administration's policy when she meets Mr. Lavrov.


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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