WASHINGTON, Sept 17 – The United States has pulled back from a plan to build a missile defence system in central Europe that had enraged Russia, after downgrading the threat of a missile attack from Iran, officials said Thursday.
Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer said he was told in a late-night call from US President Barack Obama that the shield would not go into place in the Czech Republic and that Poland had been given a similar message.
A radar base was to be built in the Czech Republic and interceptor missiles placed in Poland under the plan which Russia had said was a direct threat to its security.
The United States had used the threat from "rogue" states such as Iran to justify the shield.
"The previous design was predicated on the belief Iran was determined to develop an ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile program)," said Defence Department spokesman Geoffrey Morrell.
However new intelligence reports have shown "that they are much more focused on developing short and medium range capabilities."
A senior US defence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new system gets away "from the huge radar huge missile shield concept and focuses much more on a versatile adaptive system."
Defence Secretary Robert Gates was to make a formal announcement of the strategic change on Thursday.
The defence shield was first ordered under President George W. Bush’s administration. But Russia warned it would turn its missiles on central Europe because it considered the shield a direct threat and Obama ordered a review as soon as he came into power in January.
"President Obama called me shortly after midnight (Wednesday) to tell me his government was giving up its intention to build a radar base on Czech soil," the Czech prime minister said.
"We knew the United States was reviewing its plan to build the radar… within a reassessment of specific threats, and that one option might be to give up the plan to build the radar," Fischer said.
"The threats now rest in short- and medium-range missiles, not long-range ones. The American side decided this was the most serious threat and this is their reaction."
In Warsaw, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski did not confirm the new US plan but said "this is an American decision made on the basis of American interests."
Senior US officials were in Prague and Warsaw on Thursday to discuss the shield. The United States was also to brief NATO allies in Brussels.
"I spoke this morning with the American (NATO) ambassador and I have the impression that the US plans in terms of anti-missile defence are going to involve NATO to a greater degree," NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said.
Obama is to see Russian President Dmitry Medvedev at the United Nations in New York next week. The US leader has made significant efforts to improve frosty ties with Russia and also wants Russian help to toughen sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme.
A Russian foreign ministry spokesman denied that any kind of deal had been made with the United States in exchange for the missile defence withdrawal.
In Poland, former president and Nobel laureate Lech Walesa said it might well be time for the nation to rethink its close relationship with the United States.
"Observing Obama’s policy, I expected it," said Walesa on TVN24 television.
"If that is confirmed, it would be a failure in long-term thinking in the US administration regarding this part of Europe," added Aleksander Szczyglo, chief of national security at the Polish presidency.
For Poland, he said, the missile shield had a "political and strategic" one as well as a military one.
Mirek Topolanek, who was prime minister when Prague agreed to co-host the shield, said a US decision to drop it "is not good news for the Czech state, for Czech freedom and independence".
"This puts us in a position wherein we are not firmly anchored in terms of partnership, security and alliance, and that’s a certain threat," he told Czech public radio.