WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. President Barack Obama on Tuesday denied offering Russia a deal in which Washington would slow deployment of a missile defence shield in Europe in exchange for Moscow’s help in a nuclear stand-off with Iran.
The New York Times reported that Obama had sent a letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev last month suggesting he would back off deploying a new missile defence system if Russia helped stop Iran from developing long-range weapons.
“The report that was in The New York Times didn’t accurately characterize the letter,” Obama said after meeting British Prime Minister Gordon Brown for talks at the White House.
“What I said in the letter is what I have said publicly, which is that the missile defence that we have talked about deploying is directed towards, not Russia, but Iran,” he said.
“And what I said ... 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 defence system.”
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signalled on Tuesday that Moscow was willing to talk to Washington about the missile defence shield but that Iran’s nuclear program, which it is involved in, was a separate issue.
The United States and some European nations, including Britain, fear Iran’s nuclear program is a cover to develop atomic weapons. Tehran insists is for the peaceful generation of electricity.
Moscow, which plans to start up a nuclear reactor at Iran’s Bushehr plant by the end of the year, has used its veto in the United Nations Security Council on a number of occasions to water down or defeat U.S.-led efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran.
Obama has offered Tehran economic incentives if it abandons its nuclear program but he has also warned of tougher economic sanctions if it pushes ahead with it.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking on a visit to Jerusalem, said the United States shared Israel’s concerns about Iran seeking nuclear weapons and would “do all that we can” to deter Iran and prevent that from happening.
She also sought to reassure Moscow that the planned missile defence shield was aimed only at thwarting potential missile strikes from Iran.
U.S. officials have said the United States will go ahead with the planned deployment of the missile shield in eastern Europe, but only if it is shown to work and is cost-effective.
Moscow has viewed the plan to site missiles in Poland and a radar tracking station in the Czech Republic as a threat to its security in its traditional backyard.
“If the new (U.S.) administration shows common sense and offers a new (missile defence) structure which would satisfy European (needs) ... and would be acceptable for us, we are ready to discuss it,” Medvedev said on Tuesday.
“If we are talking about any ‘swaps’ (Iran for missile defence) this is not how the question is being put. This would not be productive,” he told a news conference in Madrid, where he was on a state visit.
Medvedev’s comments signalled possible flexibility by Moscow on an issue that contributed to a sharp deterioration in ties between Russia and the United States under former U.S. President George W. Bush and then-Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Obama has said he wants to “reset” U.S.-Russian relations to halt a drift in ties and build good relations with Moscow.
Additional reporting by Jason Webb in Madrid; Editing by Cynthia Osterman