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EUROPE: Obama in a New Game Over Missiles and Iran

Analysis by Zoltán Dujisin

BUDAPEST, Apr 21 2009 (IPS) - As the extension of the U.S. missile defence system to Eastern Europe is halted, U.S. President Barack Obama seems inclined to exchange it for Russian cooperation in taming Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

The controversial project, which would include a radar in the Czech Republic and an anti-missile base in Poland, had been energetically pushed by the previous Republican administration of former U.S. president George W. Bush, but lost impetus after the Democrat Barack Obama won the U.S. presidential bid last November.

Russia believes the system, officially aimed at protecting the West from ballistic attacks originating in Iran and ‘rogue regimes’, is aimed against it and could spark a new arms race.

Now Obama has proposed to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, suggesting an 80 percent decrease in nuclear arsenals for both countries in exchange for the U.S. reviewing its missile defence project.

More immediately, the reset would include a new treaty on strategic offensive arms, more desired by the U.S. than by Russia, and a united policy towards Iran. Analysts believe, however, that Obama will keep the missile defence project alive on paper to use it as a negotiating tool with the Russians on Iran.

After a meeting with EU leaders in Prague, Obama said that if “the Iranian threat is eliminated, we will have a stronger basis for security and the driving force for missile defence construction in Europe will be removed.” He said that “as long as the threat from Iran persists, we will go forward.”

There is some uncertainty over the influence Russia can exert on Iran, which presently does not pose a nuclear or ballistic threat to the West.

“Russia’s influence is very limited, but can be important in two senses: by standing with Western countries it can help isolate Iran politically, and it can also make sure it does not export any advanced missile technology to Iran,” Zoltan Biro, Russia expert at the Institute of History of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences told IPS.

The U.S. President’s calls for multilateral action on Iran and worldwide gradual disarmament were welcomed by the crowds attending his speech in Prague, but were received with cold skepticism by the local right-wing political elite and even with anger by much of the press affiliated to the right.

The project had the support of Czech and Polish governing elites who are disappointed by Obama’s lukewarm attitude to the project.

To them Obama’s words on Iran and the radar sounded like a diplomatic ‘no’ to a lame duck government that recently lost a no-confidence vote in the Czech parliament during the country’s rotating EU presidency.

“The system is not at a point that is effective, and the present recession gives the Obama administration an elegant way out of such a dubious and expensive project,” said Biro.

“For Russia the project is politically unacceptable; it resents it because not even in the cold war something like a long-range ballistic structure was installed in Europe,” the analyst adds.

Pundits expect all sides to try to save face and avoid looking as if easily making concessions, meaning much of the cooperation could happen behind closed doors.

Bush’s administration had in the past sought Kremlin cooperation in preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons and in assisting North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops fighting in Afghanistan. But it had offered little in exchange, leading to an all-time low in relations with Russia over the construction of its missile base in Eastern Europe and by actively promoting NATO membership for former Soviet republics.

Georgia and Ukraine’s aspirations have meanwhile been thwarted by the political chaos prevailing in both countries, creating an image of an irresponsible political elite unready for the responsibilities of membership of the military alliance.

The last drop was Georgia’s offensive on its separatist and pro-Russian South Ossetian region, which sparked a massive Russian military reaction culminating in the temporary invasion of Georgia proper and Russia’s recognition of South Ossetian independence.

While the West formally condemned Russian actions, calling for respect of Georgian sovereignty and breaking off NATO-Russian cooperation, it became equally cold and fatigued with both the Georgian and the Ukrainian pro- Western leaderships.

Last March French Defence Minister Herve Morin went as far as suggesting that Russia should be consulted on further NATO enlargement, a position that for right-wing politicians in Eastern Europe amounts to capitulation to Russia’s “imperial ambitions”.

NATO and the U.S. seem ready to re-engage in a fully-fledged dialogue with Russia but uncertainty prevails on what the Russian response will be.

“There is a tangible desire to start to do something with the Americans, but the fear that they will ‘set us up’ once again, and the suspicion that it engenders, are also still strong,” former Russian diplomat Vladimir Frolov recently wrote in Russkiy Newsweek.

These are suspicions that are growing as Russia expresses anger over NATO’s planned military exercises in Georgia in the next weeks, seen as provocative in Moscow. Now Russia threatens not to attend the joint panel with NATO expected for Apr. 29.

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