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US Assures Russia on Missile Defense

American and Russian generals, diplomats and politicians are continuing an exchange of words over a U.S. proposal to deploy a new missile defense system in Europe. The Russians are concerned that the system would target them. The Americans fear without it, the United States would be open to an emerging missile threat from Iran. VOA's Peter Fedynsky has details.

The proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe would be located in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would place American missiles near borders of the former Soviet Union. Viewing that as a threat, the commander of Russian strategic missile forces, General Nikolai Solovtsov, this week issued a blunt warning.

He says, if the governments of Poland and the Czech Republic allow the American missiles to be located on their territories, Russia will turn them into potential targets.

Speaking in Germany Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called General Solovtsov's comment "unfortunate."

"I think everybody understands that with a growing Iranian missile threat, which is quite pronounced, that there need to be ways to deal with that problem, and that we're talking about long lead times to be able to have a defensive counter to offensive missile threats," said Ms. Rice.

Poland and the Czech Republic are situated directly along the shortest line between Iran and the United States. If Iran were to develop and fire an intercontinental missile at America, the two countries would be ideal locations for hitting the missile in mid-flight.

Director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency Lieutenant General Henry Obering says the entire system would consist of 10 interceptor missiles in Europe, 40 in Alaska, and four in California.

"It takes time to build these," he noted. "It's going to take us three to four years to build out any kind of capability. So we can't look at what's happening today and say, 'that's what we need to base our decision on.' We need to look at what's happening today and project to see what may be the threat for the future. And that's very important in missile defense, because it takes time to build these capabilities."

He notes that Iran already has a short-range missile arsenal and warns that Tehran could develop long-range capability just as suddenly as North Korea did.

Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused the United States of triggering a global arms race, something that his foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, says Russia must avoid.

"What is happening in the world now doesn't mean that we are to have a new variant of the Cold War," said Mr. Lavrov.

He says Russia's response to the emerging threat "will be balanced, adequate, and it won't allow anybody to draw it into a new confrontation and a new arms race."

U.S. officials say Russia was informed in advance about plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe and note that the United States will continue to talk with Moscow about the issue.