Image: U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
AP
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, right, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov press a red button symbolizing the intention to "reset" U.S.-Russian relations during their meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, Friday, March 6.
updated 3/8/2009 12:21:56 PM ET 2009-03-08T16:21:56

If the Obama administration intends to give up missile defense in Europe as part of a security deal with Russia, as early maneuvering seems to suggest, then Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is driving a hard bargain.

On a trip to Europe and the Middle East that ended Sunday, Clinton spoke positively of the prospect of making missile defense an integral part of U.S. defense strategy, even while suggesting it may be less critical in Europe if Iran quit its nuclear program.

What she avoided was offering a quid pro quo. She did not assert that if Russia were to accelerate pressure on Tehran to back down, then the United States would scrap its plan to put anti-missile interceptors in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic.

In fact she appeared to suggest that missile defense in Europe was a good idea even if Iran no longer was a worry — although it would be less urgent.

'Very important tool'
In Belgium, at a news conference following a NATO meeting, Clinton said missile defense was "a very important tool in our defensive arsenal for the future." She later said she was referring not just to Iran but more broadly to the concept of deterring non-state adversaries such as terrorist networks from seeking to acquire a nuclear missile years or decades from now.

At another point during her trip Clinton said "Iran is the name we put to" those emerging and future threats, "but it is a kind of stand-in for the range of threats we foresee." If the present challenge of dissuading Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons proved successful, she seemed to suggest, then missile defense still might be useful because other missile threats might come up later.

Such talk may reflect doubt that Iran will change course, although what Clinton said reaffirmed during the trip that the Obama administration wants to engage Iran in talks about its nuclear program and other topics. She told an Arab diplomat at an international conference in Egypt last Monday that she doubts the Iranians will take up the American offer of a dialogue, according to a senior U.S. official who briefed reporters on condition that he not be identified because the conversation was private.

Officially, the administration has not said whether it intends to go ahead with the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic. It has stuck to the language that President Barack Obama used as candidate, that missile defense must be proved reliable and cost effective.

One possibility is that Washington and Moscow could move toward agreement, with NATO, to reconfigure current U.S. plans in a way that results in a coordinated system to provide protection of the continent against a range of missiles.

Never popular among Democrats
Missile defense was a favorite of the Bush administration, for some of the same reasons Clinton herself spelled out. But it never has been popular among Democrats. Obama's election was seen widely as signaling a death knell for the proposed European leg of the missile defense system, which also consists of interceptors in Alaska and California and radars elsewhere. Scaling back missile defense ambitions also could produce some of the big savings needed in a period of tighter budgets.

Russia says missile defense in Europe is unnecessary and provocative. Moscow even has threatened to deploy short-range missiles in its westernmost region, bordering Poland, if the U.S. goes ahead.

The rhetoric has since cooled. Talk of a bargain that would remove the missile defense irritant from the U.S.-Russian relationship centered on a letter Obama sent to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in February. The note has been interpreted by some as a conciliatory gesture and a possible first step toward linking missile defense in Europe to Russia's assistance on the Iran problem.

Clinton took up the topic with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on Thursday as part of an initial discussion of issues facing the two countries. But there was no indication either side changed its position or made any breakthroughs. It would seem likely to be among the items on Obama's agenda when he meets Medvedev for the first time, in London late this month.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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