President Obama was asked today about a New York Times story regarding a letter he sent to Russia's president last month in which Obama, according to the Times, offered to "back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons." The NYT further reported:
The Obama letter 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 requested 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 an 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.
"It’s almost saying to them, put up or shut up," said a senior administration official. "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."
At a joint briefing with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Obama was asked about the letter, according to a White House transcript:
Q I'd like to ask you about the letter that you've written to the Russian President about the anti-missile shield in Eastern Europe. Can you talk about why sort of a quid pro quo seemed like the smartest approach?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, I think that the report that was in The New York Times didn't accurately characterize the letter. What we had was a very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism. And what I said in the letter is the same thing that I've said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran. That has always been the concern, that you had potentially a missile from Iran that threatened either the United States or Europe.
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.
In no way does that in any -- does that diminish my commitment to making sure that Poland, the Czech Republic and other NATO members are fully enjoying the partnership of the Alliance and U.S. support with respect to their security.
So the way it got characterized I think was as some sort of quid pro quo. It was simply a statement of fact that I've made previously, which is, is that the missile defense program, to the extent that it is deployed, is designed to deal with not a Russian threat, but a Iranian threat.
Q -- response have you received from Russia?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We've had a good exchange between ourselves and the Russians. I've said that we need to reset or reboot the relationship there. Russia needs to understand our unflagging commitment to the independence and security of countries like a Poland or a Czech Republic. On the other hand, we have areas of common concern. And I cited two examples: the issue of nuclear nonproliferation and the issue of terrorism. And at this point, I think we probably have some potential common concerns on the world economic front, as well.
So my hope is, is that we can have a constructive relationship where, based on common respect and mutual interest, we can move forward.
-- John Liang