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Gates Hopeful of Missile Defense Progress at US-Russia Summit

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates says that when President Barack Obama visits Moscow next month, he may find increased interest in cooperation in the effort to defend Europe from a potential Iranian missile attack. The secretary spoke during a hearing at the U.S. Senate.

Secretary Gates says Russian officials have updated their analysis of Iran's missile program, and now agree with the U.S. intelligence assessment that Iran is close to being able to strike targets in much of Europe, including Russia.

Gates recounted a meeting he had a couple of years ago with then-Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"When I first met with President Putin and talked about this, he basically dismissed the idea that the Iranians would have a missile that would have the range to reach much of Western Europe and much of Russia before 2020 or so," he said. "And he showed me a map that his intelligence guys had prepared. And I told him he needed a new intelligence service."

Russia has long opposed the U.S. plan to put anti-missile missiles and a sophisticated radar complex in Poland and the Czech Republic, calling the plan a threat to Russian security.

But Gates reported that more recently, the Russians have changed their assessment of the Iranian threat.

"The Russians have come back to us and acknowledged that we were right in terms of the nearness of the Iranian missile threat and that they had been wrong," he said. "And so my hope is we can build on that, and perhaps at the president's summit meeting with President [Dmitri] Medvedev perhaps begin to make some steps where they will partner with us and Poland and the Czech Republic, in going forward with missile defense."

The Obama administration has been reviewing whether the anti-missile system is technologically feasible and cost-effective, and whether there are other ways to counter or reduce the Iranian threat.

But Secretary Gates said U.S. concern about Iran has increased as it has moved forward with uranium enrichment and missile development, and rejected international efforts to discuss curtailing the programs, including overtures from Russia.

Gates promoted the European missile defense system as an official of the Bush administration, but backed off when the Obama administration began its review. The results of that review have not been announced, but Gates indicated on Tuesday that President Obama and his team would like to move forward.

"I think the administration is very interested in continuing to pursue this prospect with the Russians," he said. "And it may be that our chances are somewhat improved for making progress."

But Secretary Gates did not say whether the Obama administration is willing to move forward with the European missile defense plan without Russian cooperation, as the Bush administration was.