Russia Welcomes Letter From Obama
MOSCOW - The Russian president, Dmitri A. Medvedev, said Tuesday that his administration was open to overtures from the United States on its proposed missile defense plan, but he dismissed the notion of a deal in which the United States would shelve the plan in exchange for Russia's help on Iran.
The statement came in response to a report in The New York Times about a private letter from President Obama to his Russian counterpart, saying the proposed missile defense system would not be necessary if Moscow could help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons and nuclear warheads.
The letter, hand-delivered three weeks ago by senior American officials visiting Moscow, was meant more to suggest an incentive for Moscow to work with Washington on Iran than to offer a specific deal, according to American officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the letter had not been made public. Both Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev spoke of the letter on Tuesday as an opening to the possibility of cooperation on an issue that has deeply divided their countries.
"If we talk about some bargain or exchange, I can say that the issues were not raised in this way, because it's counterproductive," Mr. Medvedev said at a news conference in Madrid, where he was meeting with the Spanish prime minister.
"What we are getting from our U.S. partners shows at least one thing, that our U.S. partners are ready to discuss the issue," he said. "That's good, because only a few months ago we were getting different signals - that the decision has been made, there is nothing to talk about, that we will do everything as it has been decided."
Asked about the letter by reporters at an appearance with the British prime minister, Gordon Brown, Mr. Obama said it was not "some sort of quid pro quo" but a statement of fact.
"What I said in the letter was that obviously to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for, or the need for, a missile defense system," he said. He added that the discussions with Russia did 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."
Russia has passionately opposed the missile defense plan championed by President George W. Bush, contending that placing radar and other equipment in Poland and the Czech Republic posed a direct threat to Russia. Before Mr. Bush left office, Russia proposed an alternative system that would be jointly operated and integrated with a facility on Russian territory; that offer was rejected.
The Obama administration may be more flexible. Mr. Obama has never been a strong proponent of the missile defense plan, saying he will back it only if it can be proved effective and affordable.
Asked about the letter on Tuesday at a news conference in Washington, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said the administration was not "trying to put the Russians on the spot."
"I think it is trying to reopen a dialogue," he said, adding that one option was "incorporating them in a partnership that makes them a full partner in missile defense, because the reality is that the missiles that the Iranians are testing can reach a good part of Russia, as well as Eastern Europe and part of Western Europe."
Still, the possibility of a change to the missile defense plan has unnerved leaders in Poland and the Czech Republic, who staked political capital in signing treaties with the United States. Mr. Gates said he had asked the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, to "give us a little time" to review relations between the United States and Russia.
"My sense is that the Poles were somewhat reassured," he said. "They obviously would like to see us move forward quickly and strongly."
Czech authorities made no official comment on the matter on Tuesday. Nikola Hynek, a defense expert at the Institute of International Relations, said that anxiety was mounting, but that it was too early to say how worried they should be.
"Obama is not putting missile defense in the deep freeze as such," he said. "He is putting it in the fridge. It means it can be taken out, depending on Russia."
The letter drew praise in Washington from Democrats like Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, who said he proposed something similar to Mr. Bush last year only to have Vice President Dick Cheney reject it. "This overture by President Obama is Reaganesque in its boldness," Mr. Schumer said on the Senate floor. "It has the potential to represent the most cooperative approach to a global threat by our two countries since President Reagan and Gorbachev signed the missile defense treaty 20 years ago."
Alexander Rahr, a Russia expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said the Obama administration was willing to back down on the plan, but "they want the Russians to pay a price." It was clear on Tuesday, he said, that the Russians were unwilling to link the issues of Iran and missile defense, especially amid the publicity that surrounded the letter from Mr. Obama.
"It is not in the interest of Russian diplomacy to be presented on the world stage as a junior partner, as a country which has been pressed into doing something," he said.
The matter is likely to come up at a meeting Friday in Geneva between Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev will meet for the first time on April 2 in London.
Peter Baker and Thom Shanker contributed reporting from Washington, and Judy Dempsey from Berlin.