PRAGUE — The Obama administration has begun to indicate that it's willing to reconsider the Bush administration's push to deploy a ballistic missile defense system in the Czech Republic and Poland — if Russia helps curb Iran's push to develop nuclear weapons.
Echoing Vice President Joe Biden, who said the new administration wants to push a "reset button" on U.S.-Russia relations, Undersecretary of State William Burns told the Interfax news agency in Moscow last week that, "The United States is quite open to the possibility of new forms of cooperation" with Moscow on missile defense, Iran and "the whole range of security issues with Russia." His remarks are posted on the Interfax Web site.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is to meet her Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva, Switzerland next month, paving the way for the first meeting between President Obama and Russian Pres. Dmitry Medvedev at the Group of Eight economic summit in London in early April.
The meetings come as concerns continue to mount about Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear enrichment programs, as Israeli hard-liners who consider Iran an existential threat gain ground and as Moscow grows more vocal about what it charges are U.S. encroachments on its spheres of influence in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. They also come, however, as falling oil prices and bad investments hammer the once high-flying Russian economy.
Treaties to approve the missile defense plans, which Russia opposes, were signed in 2008 in Prague and in Poland. Poland would be home to a missile interceptor base, and the Czech radar installation would be built about 50 miles from Prague.
Echoing doubts about the system, however, Biden and Clinton both said that technological and economic factors also might affect construction of the bases. Said Biden: "We will continue to develop missile defenses to counter a growing Iranian capability, provided the technology is proven to work and cost-effective."
While it's a secondary issue for the U.S., missile defense is one of the most important political issues for the Czech Republic, which two decades ago helped lead Eastern Europe's march from communism to democracy.
Cancelling the project just as Moscow has taken a more aggressive stance toward the former Soviet republics of Georgia and Ukraine would strain U.S. relations with the two East European countries that risked Moscow's wrath to accept it, and with others that also worry about a revanchist Russia.
"The potential U.S. missile defense European site is not just a dozen of anti-ballistic missiles and a radar," Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergey Ivanov said in Munich. "It is a part of the U.S. strategic infrastructure aimed at deterring Russia's nuclear missile potential."
The Bush administration argued that it wanted the radars and the missiles to deter and defend against an Iranian ballistic missile attack on the U.S. or the European Union, not as part of a plan to encircle and neutralize Russia.
Few Czechs, however, have bought that argument. Public opposition to the radar installation has hovered at around two-thirds of the citizenry since polling began in September 2006.
A new poll by the Czech-based Public Opinion Research Centre, released on February 11, found that 65 percent of Czech citizens oppose the base and 72 percent want a referendum on the subject. Moreover, the poll found, 77 percent of Czechs fear that the base could become the target of a military attack, and 67 percent are worried about a potential terrorist attack on it.
The Czech officials who brokered the 2008 deal with the Bush administration were warned that everything might change with the new administration, said Jiri Pehe, a political analyst and the director of New York University in Prague. Yet the Czechs ignored those warnings.
Jan Majicek, a spokesman for the No Bases Initiative, a Prague-based group opposed to the base, said that Czechs don't want to be associated with the aggressive American foreign policy of the last eight years.
Second, Majicek said, Czechs don't want foreign troops on their soil again, given the history of Nazi and Soviet occupation. Finally, he said, "Many people feel cheated" by the plan, which reportedly were in motion before 2006 parliamentary elections, but not announced to the public until afterward.
(Byron Asher, a 2008 graduate of Brown University, is an intern with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague. He's the son of McClatchy Washington Bureau investigative editor James Asher.)
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