President Barack Obama sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons, American officials said Monday.
The letter to President Dmitri A. Medvedev was hand-delivered in Moscow by top administration officials three weeks ago. It said the United States would not need to proceed with the interceptor system, which has been vehemently opposed by Russia since it was proposed by the Bush administration, if Iran halted any efforts to build nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles.
The officials who described the contents of the message insisted on anonymity because it has not been made public. While they said it did not offer a direct quid pro quo, the letter was intended to give Moscow incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran. Russia’s military, diplomatic and commercial ties to Tehran give it some influence there, but it has often resisted Washington’s hard line against Iran.
Moscow has not responded, but a Russian official said Monday that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov would have something to say on missile defense to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they meet Saturday in Geneva. Obama and Medvedev will then meet for the first time on April 2 in London, officials said Monday.
Obama’s letter, sent in response to one he received from Medvedev shortly after his inauguration, represents part of an effort to “press the reset button” on Russian-American relations, as Vice President Joe Biden put it last month. Among other things, the letter discussed negotiations to extend a strategic arms treaty expiring this year and cooperation in opening supply routes to Afghanistan.
The plan to build a high-tech radar facility in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland — a part of the world that Russia once considered its sphere of influence — was a top priority for President George W. Bush to deter Iran in case it developed a nuclear warhead to fit atop its long-range missiles. Bush never accepted a Moscow proposal to install part of the missile defense system on its territory and jointly operate it so it could not be used against Russia.
Now the Obama administration appears to be reconsidering that idea, although it is not clear if it would want to put part of the system on Russian soil where it could be flipped on or off by Russians. Obama has been lukewarm on missile defense, saying he supports it only if it can be proved technically effective and affordable.
Bush also stressed the linkage between the Iranian threat and missile defense, but Obama’s overture reformulates it in a way designed to appeal to the Russians, who long ago soured on the Bush administration. Officials have been hinting at the possibility of an agreement in recent weeks, and Obama’s proposal was reported on Monday by a Moscow newspaper, Kommersant.