In a bid to win Russian support for a U.S. missile defense system in Eastern Europe, the United States has proposed delaying its activation until there is concrete intelligence that Iran has long-range missiles, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said yesterday.
Gates made the offer directly to senior Russian officials during a visit to Moscow last week. But he chose to publicize it in Prague, on the same day President Bush highlighted the threat of Iran's missile program, which the president said might enable Tehran to strike the U.S. mainland by 2015.
The Eastern European system faces strong objections from Moscow, which fears it could also be used against Russia's nuclear missiles, and from the Democratic-led Congress, which has cut funding for the program's construction. Voters in both Poland and the Czech Republic, where the system is due to be based, are also overwhelmingly opposed.
Bush said yesterday that Iran tested ballistic missiles just under a year ago that were capable of reaching Israel, Turkey and U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. Iranian officials, he added, have said they are developing missiles with a 1,200-mile range, which would allow them to strike NATO allies in Eastern and Southern Europe.
"Today we have no way to defend Europe against the emerging Iranian threat, and so we must deploy a missile defense system there that can," Bush said in a speech at the National Defense University for senior military officers in Washington.
Under current plans, construction would begin on the system next year and it would be activated by 2013, just ahead of the projected completion of the Iranian program.
Although the intelligence estimate that Iran could have an intercontinental ballistic missile by 2015 has been public for several months, the two messages - Bush's warning on the Iranian threat and Gates' on the U.S. willingness to placate Russian fears - suggested a new level of urgency.
U.S. officials familiar with the offer to the Russians insisted that it would not give Moscow a veto over the system's deployment and American officials would continue negotiations with Poland and the Czech Republic, despite Russia's insistence that those talks cease.
But according to one senior U.S. official involved in the talks with the Russians, the U.S. would "reconsider the time-line" for construction, if Iran falls behind current intelligence estimates, including the possibility of a delay in switching on the system until the ICBM threat becomes more concrete.
Gates, traveling yesterday in the Czech Republic, said the plan is in the conceptual phase and no details had been presented to Moscow.
"The idea was we would go forward with the [Polish and Czech] negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps would delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran," he said in Prague.
In public, Russian President Vladimir V. Putin has remained implacable. The administration now faces another hurdle with the weekend victory of the opposition Civic Platform party in Polish parliamentary elections.
Peter Spiegel and James Gerstenzang write for the Los Angeles Times.