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Shelving missile shield entices Moscow

Analysis: President Barack Obama is betting Moscow will return the favor by helping him blunt Iran's nuclear ambitions.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Barack Obama is betting Moscow will return the favor by helping him blunt Iran's nuclear ambitions.

In what could shape a major geopolitical realignment, the White House is scrapping a key irritant in the soured U.S.-Russian relationship — the Bush-era plan for a missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic.

So far, only the U.S. has showed its hand, but the timing of the announcement, just days before Obama is to meet Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, points to the prospect of deep bargaining to entice Moscow's help on Iran.

The United States is deeply concerned that Iran is using a civilian nuclear program as a cover to build atomic weapons. Iran denies that, but has refused to fully open the program to U.N. inspection.

American intelligence and independent assessments from international nuclear experts both point to the possibility that Tehran will soon have a nuclear weapon. That would vastly change the balance of power in the Middle East.

Washington has tried to divert the Iranian course through a series of international sanctions aimed at isolating its regime. Iran is already struggling economically and distracted by significant internal political upheaval over the recent re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

However, the kind of painful penalties that might have been effective in altering Iranian behavior have long been blocked in the United Nations Security Council by Russia and China.

Economic links
Moscow and Beijing both have major economic links with Iran and fear losing those streams of income. Moscow does a big business in arms sales to the Iranians and the Chinese are heavily dependent on Iranian crude oil.

As expected, Moscow was quick to lay down a marker against perceptions it was being bought off. Sergey Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said Thursday that the Kremlin continues to oppose new sanctions, which he says would harm upcoming negotiations with the Iranians.

The Russians, however, can do a lot of behind-the-scenes arm-twisting. Medvedev, notably, praised Obama's decision Thursday as a "responsible move."

Other prominent Russian commentators were more effusive, heralding the administration move as a seminal change for relations between the two countries.

"Now we can talk about restoration of the strategic partnership between Russia and the United States," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament.

Unlike former President George W. Bush, who refused to negotiate with Iran, Obama said he wanted to talk with the Islamic regime and set a Sept. 15 deadline for Tehran to respond. He promised to push for tougher sanctions, should Iran demur.

Tehran has responded, and talks among Iranian negotiators, the five permanent members of the Security Council — the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China — plus Germany are set for early October.

Obama took office promising to "reset" relations with Russia. He visited Moscow this summer to emphasize his desire to repair ties that had soured during the Bush administration, especially over the missile shield.

Obama said at the time that the missile system was under review and would only be built if it would be effective. Those statements would likely have been taken as signals by Medvedev and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the new American president understood Kremlin sensitivities about the missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, former members of the Soviet bloc and close to the Russian border.

And in announcing Thursday that the program was shelved, Obama took cover against Republican political opponents by saying the U.S. would instead be deploying new technology and systems that would more capably protect against the Iranian threat.

And he openly invited Russia to join in that effort with its own missile defense capabilities.

Predictably, supporters of the Bush policy and the missile shield were quick to denounce Obama's change, as were politicians in both Poland and the Czech Republic who had heavily spent their political capital by agreeing to accept the U.S. armaments.

But even that fallout may be minimal. The majority of U.S. NATO partners, who were the core of the alliance before the Soviet Union dissolved, have been lukewarm toward the missile shield from the start. And NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said Obama's decision was a "positive step."

China is next
Having given it his best with Russia, China is next. Obama has three whacks at that in short order.

He's meeting Chinese President Hu Jintao during the United Nations sessions next week and again at the G-20 gathering later in the week in Pittsburgh.

And he can finish the sales job during a November visit to the Chinese leader in Beijing.