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Eyeing Iran, U.S. Hopes to Cut Deal With Russia on Missile Shield

Thursday, Oct. 18, 2007

In a fairly predictable trade-off, the U.S. is wooing Russian support for stopping Iran's nuclear program, offering to soften the U.S. stance on missile defense in Eastern Europe. The missile shield the U.S. hopes to build in Poland with radar in the Czech Republic would still be built, but the U.S. has offered not to turn it on unless Russia agrees that Iran has become a threat.

Perhaps the most significant, and largely unstated implication in the offer, is that the missile shield is really to defend against Iran, North Korea and other "rogue states", and does not seek to undermine Russian missiles or military capabilities. With Putin under global scrutiny for his consolidation of power, the message that the U.S. is not directly maneuvering against Russia may help ease tensions.

Instead, it looks like the U.S. hopes to deflect attention toward Iran. An excellent article in the Financial Times has more:

The US hopes to convince Russia that its evaluation of the Iranian threat is inaccurate. Officials point out that Iran tends to deploy missiles much sooner after their initial flight tests than Russia, which they believe has lulled Moscow into a false sense of security.

In Moscow last weekend, the US and Russia agreed to work together to establish the criteria needed to measure Iranian capabilities. But at a joint press conference, Sergei Lavrov, Russia's foreign minister, said the process would reaffirm its belief that Iran does not pose an imminent threat.

The US hopes the proposal would also encourage Mr Putin, who visited Tehran for the first time this week, to persuade Iran to halt its uranium enrichment programme. The US made clear it was also concerned about Iranian chemical and biological weapons that could be delivered on long-range missiles.

It is still unclear what exactly the U.S. hopes Russia will do, but there is no doubt that Putin remains focused on Iran. In an intriguing development, Putin visited with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameni on Tuesday, and is said to have offered "a special proposal."

Strategically, Putin's positioning is very shrewd. With the U.S. making concessions, and Iran no doubt making other offers in the hopes that Russia might veto Security Council sanctions, international criticism of Russia's internal affairs is likely to become less pronounced. If the Iran debate lingers as far as Russia's election, this may be exactly what the Russian leader is looking for.