Biden works to repair relations

The Baltimore Sun

MUNICH -Vice President Joe Biden held out an olive branch to Iran and Russia yesterday and reassured European allies that the Obama administration would treat them as equals but emphasized that "America will ask its partners to do more as well."

In a major foreign policy address yesterday to an international security conference, Biden told an audience of world leaders that the White House was willing to engage the government in Tehran if it heeded calls to end its nuclear-weapons program and changed its policies in the Middle East.

"This much is clear: We will be willing to talk," Biden said. But he added a warning to Iran: "Continue down your current course, and there will be pressure and isolation."

Biden also said the White House wanted a fresh start with the Kremlin, which under Vladimir V. Putin had seen a steady deterioration in relations with the Bush administration.

"The last few years have seen a dangerous drift in relations between Russia and members of our alliance," he said, referring to the NATO military alliance. "The United States rejects the notion that NATO's gain is Russia's loss, or that Russia's strength is NATO's weakness."

"As President Obama has said, 'It's time to press the reset button,' " he added.

In recent months, Moscow and Washington have squabbled over the Russian invasion of Georgia, proposals to expand NATO and the global financial crisis. The Pentagon also blames Russia for pressuring the Central Asian country of Kyrgystan to close a U.S. air base that supplies troops in Afghanistan.

Another sore point has been the Pentagon's plans to develop a global missile-defense shield with anchors in Poland and the Czech Republic. The U.S. military says it needs to base missile interceptors and a radar-tracking system in Eastern Europe to fend off a possible attack from Iran. Russia, however, has said it sees the shield as a veiled attempt to negate its nuclear forces and has threatened to target Poland and the Czech Republic in retaliation.

Russian leaders had been hoping that Barack Obama, who was cool to the idea of a missile shield during his presidential campaign, would pull the plug. Biden said the project would go forward, but only if the Obama administration is satisfied that its unproven technology will work and only in consultation with Europe and Russia.

"We will continue to develop the missile-defense system," he said, "provided the technology is proven and cost-effective."

Biden is scheduled to meet privately later this weekend in Munich with Sergei Ivanov, Russia's deputy prime minister. While he was conciliatory in his speech, Biden also signaled that the Obama administration would take a tough line when necessary.

For example, he said the U.S. government would not recognize the breakaway Caucasus republics of Abkhazia or South Ossetia, which seceded after the war in Georgia and has received strong Russian support.

"We will not agree with Russia on everything," he said. "We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence."

Although he did not directly refer to the dispute over the military base in Kyrgystan, Biden said he hoped the United States and Russia would work more closely to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, a goal that Russia has said it shares. "The U.S. and Russia can disagree but still work together where its interests coincide," he said.

The vice president told European leaders that the White House was amid a top-to-bottom review of its policy in Afghanistan, where the war is entering its eighth year with no end in sight.

Although Biden said the Obama administration would cooperate closely with NATO members on the strategic review, he also said that it would expect more help. The White House is expected to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan this year, nearly doubling the size of its force there. European countries, however, have been reluctant to do more.

"We are sincere in seeking your counsel," Biden said. "But there must be a comprehensive strategy in which we all take responsibility.

Biden did not make specific demands for more troops at the conference. Nor did European leaders offer any.

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