The United States and the Czech Republic on Tuesday signed an initial agreement to begin basing part of a U.S. missile shield in the former Soviet satellite.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the shield is a good deal for the Czech Republic and for Poland, where the United States hopes to place another part of the system, although Warsaw hasn't yet agreed.
The next American president will have to decide whether and how to go forward with the missile defense system, Rice said, while making the case that the threat from Iran is growing.
"It's hard for me to believe that that's not a capability an American president is going to want to have," Rice said.
Rice signed the agreement along with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.
Earlier, Rice all but ruled out a stop in Poland this week, saying that the United States has answered Polish demands for military hardware and the final agreement rests with Polish authorities.
"We are at a place where these negotiations need to come to a conclusion," Rice told reporters. But she said there was little point in going to Warsaw unless the Poles are ready to move ahead.
Highly unpopular plan
The missile systems, which the United States says are a defense against long-range weapons from the Middle East and especially Iran, are highly unpopular in both the Czech Republic and in Poland, the former Soviet satellite states where the United States wants to place missiles and interceptors in the next five years.
"Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat," Rice said after meeting Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. She said Iran continues to perfect the tools it might one day use to build a bomb, along with long-range missiles that could carry a warhead.
The proposed U.S. missile defense system calls for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.
Russia, however, bitterly opposed the plan, calling it an affront to its sovereignty and a potential threat, and has threatened to aim its own missiles at any eventual base in Poland or the Czech Republic.
Talks with Poland bog down
The Bush administration is trying to arrange deals before U.S. President George W. Bush leaves office in January. But talks with Poland have bogged down recently over Polish demands for billions of dollars worth of U.S. military aid, in part to deter a possible strike from Russia.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said last Friday that Poland wants U.S. assurances of short- and medium-range anti-missile systems, including a Patriot missile battery to shore up its own defenses.
"The fundamental issue that must be resolved is in what way the American installations are going to be protected from an eventual missile attack, and in what way Poland is going to be protected from an eventual ballistic missile attack," Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich said Tuesday on TVN24 television.
Rice's Czech host said he hopes his parliament will approve the deal, and noted that friction on the Polish side should not reflect on his own country's efforts.
"If the negotiations between the United States and Poland get complicated, that doesn't mean that we failed but the contrary, that is our negotiations were very hard, realistic and led to a conclusion," Topolanek said.
And Tuesday's signing in Prague isn't a guarantee that U.S. will be able to build and operate a proposed radar base near the Czech capital. There are still open negotiations on a second treaty dealing with the legal status of U.S. soldiers to be deployed at the planned radar base. Even more difficult will be parliamentary approval for both documents.
The three-party governing coalition enjoys the support of only half of the 200 lawmakers in the parliament's lower chamber, not enough to ratify any deal as the opposition parties fiercely oppose the missile defense plan and call for a nationwide referendum on the issue.
About two thirds of Czechs say they oppose the missile defense deal, according to a number of polls.
The government plans to submit the deal with U.S. to the hostile parliament for a heated and lengthy debate only after the next general elections planned for 2010.
Rice said earlier that she had laid out the U.S. position at a hastily called meeting in Washington with Poland's foreign minister. She would not go into details, but Poland is trying to sweeten or shore up U.S. pledges for millions in additional U.S. military aid. Rice said she explained what the United States can do and that the matter now rests with others for further discussion.
In Washington, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski rejected the suggestion that his quick, closed-door meeting was aimed at salvaging a missile deal. He called the meeting productive and said that Poland had clarified its position.
He said "talks have continued all along and will continue."