KRAKOW, Poland (Reuters) - The United States told Poland Thursday it needed more time to complete a review of the missile defence project before it could decide whether to press ahead with the controversial plan.
The Obama administration has signalled it may slow plans to deploy elements of a missile defence shield in Poland and the Czech Republic as part of a drive to improve frosty ties with Russia, whose cooperation Washington needs in confronting Iran.
U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates discussed the missile shield issue with his Polish counterpart Bogdan Klich during a meeting of NATO defence ministers in the Polish city of Krakow.
“The fact is that between the economic crisis, Afghanistan and Iraq, the administration has not yet reviewed where it is on a whole range of issues, including relationships with our allies, the missile defence program, the relationship with the Russians,” Gates told reporters.
“These things are all in many respects tied together including Iran... We’re just asking... that they (the Poles) just have to give us a little time to review these things.”
The shield plans, championed by the previous U.S. administration, have contributed to a big chill in U.S.-Russian relations over the past few years.
Russia regards the project as a threat to its national security and is pressing President Barack Obama to give ground on the missile shield in exchange for Moscow helping supply the U.S.-led military campaign in Afghanistan.
The United States insists the missile defence shield is aimed not at Russia but at possible attacks by terrorist organizations or what it calls rogue states, particularly Iran.
Poland and the Czech Republic, rattled by Russia’s more assertive diplomacy, want closer security ties with Washington.
One Polish diplomat told Reuters on Thursday: “Gates’ people told me there was no change in the (missile defence) project, so we should not get nervous... There are no reasons to worry.”
Gates, defence secretary in the Bush administration, said Iran still posed a missile threat that justified the shield plan, provided the technology works and is cost effective.
Using stronger language than previous comments by top Pentagon officials, Gates said Iran’s launch of an Omid telecommunications satellite on February 3 showed it was improving its ability to field missiles with a range that could pose a danger to countries in Europe.
Western powers fear the Islamic Republic is trying to build a nuclear bomb and missile delivery systems.
Iran, the world’s fourth-largest oil producer, says its nuclear work is to generate electricity, and the satellite launch was for peaceful purposes. It is reported to be building seven more satellites.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, writing by Gareth Jones, editing by Tim Pearce