In diplomacy as with property, location is everything. President Barack Obama’s decision to scrap the proposed early warning radar and mid-course interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic and seek, instead, a sea-based missile defence architecture in southern Europe represents a bold opening gambit in Washington’s attempt to ‘reset’ its relations with Moscow. Although the stated purpose for locating the missile defence system in central Europe was to protect Nato countries from long-range Iranian missile attacks, Russia saw the move as one aimed against it. After all, if American allies could be protected from Russian missile strikes, this would allow the U.S. to launch a pre-emptive attack on Russia without the fear of retaliation. The Bush administration dismissed these fears as groundless but was cool to a Kremlin proposal for using an early warning radar system in Azerbaijan that would have been far more effective in allowing for the early interception of Iranian missiles, further confirming Moscow’s fears. Thanks to the stand-off and the wider dissonance it set off in Georgia and elsewhere, relations between Russia and the U.S. deteriorated rather sharply.
Mr. Obama came to office acutely aware of the political cost the missile defence controversy was exacting. And this is where it is important to pay attention to the full set of motives behind his decision to relocate the missile defence paraphernalia. U.S. administration officials say their latest intelligence shows Iran’s long-range missiles do not as yet pose a threat to Europe though its short- and medium-range missiles like the Shahab-3 do. Since these missiles are capable of reaching targets in southern Europe, the U.S. will focus on locating the sea-based Aegis system there. Leaving aside the question of whether Iran really poses a military threat to Europe, it is obvious that Mr. Obama’s decision is aimed at securing Russian support for the tightening of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear issue. President Dmitry Medvedev should reject the suggestion that the two issues should be linked in this way and that Moscow has some reason to feel grateful that Washington has seen the folly of bringing missile defence into the heart of Europe. The surest way of ensuring that the forthcoming dialogue with Iran will fail is to create the impression that a hostile armada is being assembled over the horizon. Improving relations with Russia should be an important end in itself for the U.S., especially given the ambitious arms control and disarmament agenda the White House wishes to pursue.