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No Trade-Off

jg/sms/nda/afp/dpa/ap/reutersMarch 3, 2009

Russian President Medvedev has said he's willing to discuss the proposed US missile shield with Washington. But he added that any deal linking those talks with negotiations regarding Iran would not be productive.

A missile launch
The US missile shield plans have been vehemently opposed in RussiaImage: AP Graphics

Russian President Dimitry Medvedev's comments came in response to a New York Times report that US President Barack Obama had written a secret letter to his Russian counterpart offering to halt the planned missile shield, which would be located mainly in Poland and the Czech Republic, in return for Moscow's help in stopping Iran from developing long-range nuclear weapons.

The Russian president welcomed the "positive signals" coming from the Obama administration with which he said he hoped to reach "agreements." "Haggling," however, was "not productive," added Medvedev on Tuesday, March 3.

The Russian president also said Obama's letter had not presented the issue in such a way.

Obama on Tuesday said the Times report did not "accurately characterize the letter" he sent Medvedev.

"What I said in the letter was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for -- or the need for a missile-defense system," he said.

Montage of photos from Medvedev and Obama
The exact wording of Obama's letter to Medvedev is unclearImage: AP

Earlier, Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova confirmed the receipt of a letter, but added that "there were no concrete proposals about any mutually binding decisions."

On Sunday, the Russia president was quoted as saying that Moscow was waiting for new US proposals to resolve the missile dispute.

The Times' sources said while the letter did not offer a direct quid pro quo deal, it was intended to give Moscow an incentive to join the United States in a common front against Iran.

"It's almost saying to them, put up or shut up," an unnamed senior official told the newspaper. "It's not that the Russians get to say, 'We'll try and therefore you have to suspend.' It says the threat has to go away."

Too close to home

US soldiers man a missile battery
The Bush administration said the facilities were intended to stop Iranian missilesImage: AP

Russia has been bitterly opposed to the deployment of a US missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic ever since it was proposed by the former US President George W. Bush's administration. Moscow believes the interceptor system is aimed at Russia. Bush officials have said it was meant to counter missile threats from states such as Iran.

Medvedev had warned last year that Moscow would deploy nuclear-capable Iskander missiles to Kaliningrad, a Russian exclave bordered by Lithuania and Poland, in response to the plans.

There are indications that the missile defense shield will be on the agenda between Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they meet on Friday.

Iranian nuclear program continues

In foreground, a desk with Russian and Iranian flags. Through the window we can see Bushehr atomic plant
Russia is in charge of construction at the Bushehr siteImage: AP

Iran has repeatedly rejected calls by the UN Security Council -- of which Russia and the United States are permanent members -- to halt uranium enrichment, despite the imposition of three sets of sanctions. The United States and its European allies believe that Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, a charge that Tehran denies, saying that the program is purely civilian.

Iran recently began testing its Bushehr nuclear plant, a construction project run by Russia. Last week, Tehran said its first nuclear power station could go on line within months.

On Monday, Clinton reiterated Washington's willingness to engage with Iran if it "unclenches its fist." This represents a clear switch in policy from the previous US administration, which made talks dependent upon Iran halting the enrichment process.

Russian news agencies cited Lavrov as saying that US talks with Iran could help to end the international standoff over its nuclear program and boost regional security.