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U.S, Russia Deny Secret Deal On Missile Defense

U.S, Russia Deny Secret Deal On Missile Defense
by Mary Louise Kelly | NPR

Both the U.S. and Russia are denying that any secret deal is in the works concerning missile defense and Iran.

The denials follow a front-page story in Tuesday's New York Times reporting that President Obama sent a "secret letter" to Moscow, suggesting he would back off deploying a missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing its nuclear weapons program.

At the White House on Tuesday, President Obama was quick to throw cold water on the Times story.

"I think that the report that was in the New York Times didn't accurately characterize the letter," Obama said.

What Obama took exception to is the notion that there was some sort of secret deal being offered. But the president did acknowledge writing to his Russian counterpart, President Dmitry Medvedev.

"And 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.

For its part, Russia has long opposed the idea of a U.S. missile shield based in Poland and the Czech Republic — two former Soviet satellite states. Russia has also long resisted taking a harder line against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

President Medvedev on Tuesday said that the two issues are separate.

Medvedev, speaking at a press conference in Madrid, said it wouldn't be productive to talk about any trade-off or deal on the issues of Iran and missile defense. But the Russian president did sound encouraged by the Obama administration's willingness to talk. He added that Moscow is "hearing different signals" from its "American partners" these days.

Obama also said he'd like to improve U.S.-Russian relations.

"We've had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians. I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there," he said.

The question is whether, beyond the diplomatic niceties, there is an opening here.

Tom Graham thinks there might be. Graham served as senior director for Russia on the National Security Council, under President Bush. He says it's not clear whether Obama will succeed at persuading Russia to join in a common front against Iran, but that the administration is setting the table for future cooperation.

"So far, they have said the right things in public," he says. "They have demonstrated to the Russians that they are serious about re-engaging on a range of issues that the Russians have told us are extremely important to them."

But Graham cautions that missile defense and Iran are only two of many sensitive issues on the table. There's also Ukraine, Georgia — and questions about a key air base in Kyrgyzstan that is used to supply U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Graham says working through all these issues will take time, but that at least Washington and Moscow are talking.

The conversation will continue next month, when Obama and Medvedev sit down face-to-face for the first time, at the G-20 summit in London.

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