Obama Missile Defense Move Wins Russia Praise, No Shift on Iran
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By Janine Zacharia
Sept. 18 (Bloomberg) -- President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap a U.S. missile defense system for eastern Europe won praise from Russian leaders. What it didn’t win was a sign that they will cooperate to thwart Iran’s nuclear program.
Obama stressed that his reversal of President George W. Bush’s plan to place radar and missile interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland reflects a new assessment of Iran’s missile capabilities, not a response to Russian opposition.
“This is not about Russia,” White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said yesterday.
Analysts and lawmakers saw it differently. They called the move a gesture less than a week before Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to meet Sept. 23 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where Iran and its nuclear program will top the U.S. agenda.
The Obama administration “wanted to get it out there before the meetings in New York,” said Janusz Bugajski a senior fellow in the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It will be read in Russia as ‘America stepping back,’ which is potentially dangerous if they feel emboldened to push other things to gain concessions.”
Russian leaders reacted positively, while showing no sign of supporting the tougher international sanctions on Iran that the U.S. seeks.
Medvedev praised Obama’s decision as “responsible.” Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the foreign relations committee of Russia’s lower house of parliament, said the “long-awaited” move showed that “the Obama administration is beginning to understand us.”
Yet Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated that demanding “the immediate imposition of sanctions” against Iran would be a “serious mistake,” the Moscow-based Interfax news service reported.
Russia was enough of a consideration that Obama’s national security adviser, retired General James Jones, notified the country’s ambassador personally of the decision at the White House about the same time that the president made his statement, a U.S. official told reporters in a briefing. It’s too early to know whether the change of course will improve the tenor of talks with Russia, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The meetings in New York weren’t a factor in the timing of the announcement, even though the new U.S. assessment of the Iranian missile threat is more in line with Russia’s own findings, the official said.
Republicans decried Obama’s move.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, Obama’s Republican rival in last year’s election, said the decision “has the potential to undermine perceived American leadership in Eastern Europe” at a time when “Eastern European nations are increasingly wary of renewed Russian adventurism.”
Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina called the move a “strategic mistake” and said it “emboldens Russia and pulls the rug out from under our Polish and Czech Republic allies.”
“They may try to call this hitting the reset button on our relationship with Russia,” Graham said. “It looks more like retreat.”
The timing was unfortunate if the U.S. wanted to reassure the Poles it wouldn’t abandon them, said Bugajski. Yesterday was the 70th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland at the start of World War II, which led to the country’s partition by the Soviets and Germany.
Arms control advocates said the new plan doesn’t mark a retreat. It will deploy more military capability in Eastern Europe than the Bush plan, said Joseph Cirincione, a former staffer on the House Armed Services Committee.
“In some ways, this is a more aggressive posture than that of the Bush administration,” said Cirincione, who now heads the Ploughshares Fund, a San Francisco-based group that advocates eliminating nuclear weapons. “By 2011, we’re going to be deploying Aegis cruisers and destroyers in the coasts off of Iran to counter the Iranian ballistic missiles that exist.”
The plan is based on realistic intelligence analysis and on the potential Iranian threat of short- and medium-range missiles to U.S. troops in the Middle East, Israel and members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in southeastern Europe, said Greg Thielmann, a former State Department non-proliferation official.
Bush Plan Limits
“The Bush plan that President Obama inherited did nothing to address those threats,” Thielmann said.
While Democratic lawmakers largely hailed the decision, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York said it was now time for the Russians “to join our push to impose stricter sanctions on Iran in order to halt its nuclear weapons program.”
The U.S. and its allies on the UN Security Council, along with Germany, have pushed Iran to halt uranium enrichment in exchange for a suspension of sanctions. Iran has said its nuclear program is closed for discussion.
The U.S. will dispatch its undersecretary of state for political affairs, William Burns, to an Oct. 1 meeting with U.S. allies and Iran. The State Department has said it will use the meeting to outline the consequences of Iran proceeding with a nuclear program.
Iran has expanded its nuclear stockpile to 1,430 kilograms of low-enriched uranium hexafluoride, up from 75 kilograms in December 2007, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. It has also almost doubled its number of centrifuges in its enrichment facility at Natanz since 2007.
Obama said yesterday he was acting on the “unanimous” recommendation of Defense Secretary Robert Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The decision reflected advances in missile technology since the original plan was unveiled and revised assessments of Iran’s missile programs, Obama said.
U.S. intelligence agencies have determined that the Iranians are developing longer-range missiles more slowly than previously projected, Gates said in a separate announcement. At the same time, their short- and medium-range ballistic technology such as the Shahab-3 missile is advancing more rapidly, he said.
Bugajski said the Russians would use the determination about Iranian capabilities to say, “We were right. Iran’s not such a big threat.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Janine Zacharia in Washington at [email protected]
Last Updated: September 18, 2009 00:01 EDT
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