, WASHINGTON, Sep 18 – In a major shift after reviewing the threat from Iran, US President Barack Obama Thursday shelved plans for a missile shield in Eastern Europe which sparked a Cold War-style row with Russia.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter, and swifter defenses of American forces and America’s allies," Obama said at the White House.
Obama defended his decision to ditch the shield, which was the brainchild of former president George W. Bush, despite the risk of alienating US allies in the former Soviet bloc and claims the move would send the wrong signal to Iran.
"This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program," he said.
Obama decided to replace the shield, which had sparked serious discord in US-Russian relations, with a more mobile system targeting Iranian short and medium-range missiles, initially with sea-based interceptors.
The dramatic move followed a shift in intelligence assessments of Iran’s ballistic program, which concluded the most immediate threat was Tehran’s short- and medium-range arsenal, not yet-to-be-developed long-range missiles.
"Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile program and that continues to be our focus and basis of the program that we’re announcing today," Obama said.
The Bush-era system would have involved building a radar system in the Czech Republic and basing missiles in Poland — a scenario which infuriated Russia.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said under the reconfigured system, more mobile SM-3 interceptor missiles would initially be deployed on ships, while the military developed a land-based system.
Three phases are envisioned, eventually providing the United States protection against intercontinental ballistic missiles, he said.
Consultations have begun with allies, starting with Poland and the Czech Republic, about hosting future land-based interceptors, he added.
The White House denied the decision was part of a quid pro quo intended to entice greater Russian cooperation on issues like Iran’s nuclear program and Afghanistan.
"Absolutely not," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs, insisting the president had been motivated by military and strategic imperatives.
"This is not about Russia," he said.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev welcomed the move as a responsible step and hinted it would help thaw relations between the two countries.
He praised the "responsible decision of the US president" in comments on Russian television and added: "I am ready to continue dialogue."
French President Nicolas Sarkozy hailed Obama’s "excellent decision," while Polish and Czech leaders insisted ties with the United States would remain strong.
"I received President Obama’s words and declarations with great satisfaction," Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk said, adding the new project still offered "a chance to improve European security taking Poland into particular consideration."
Czech President Vaclav Klaus also brushed off any concerns about the decision’s impact on ties with the United States.
"I’m 100 percent convinced that this decision of the American government does not signal a cooling of relations between the United States and the Czech Republic," Klaus said.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said Washington still intended to deploy armed ground-to-air Patriot-type missiles in Poland as previously agreed. "This is something we have wanted for a long time," he said.
Others were more skeptical, with former Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek saying Obama’s decision was "not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence."
There was also fury among Republicans, who tried to use the decision to brand Obama as weak on national security.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell called the decision "both shortsighted and harmful to our long-term security interests."
"We must not turn our backs on two loyal allies in the war on terror," McConnell argued.
And Obama’s defeated Republican election foe John McCain complained that the decision was "seriously misguided."