The State Department Thursday rejected comments by Austria's defense minister that the U.S. missile defense system planned for central Europe is unnecessary and amounts to a Cold War-style provocation. U.S. officials say the system, to be based in Poland and the Czech Republic, is intended to counter a potential missile threat from Iran. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.

The State Department is vigorously defending the anti-missile plan in the face of comments by Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos that the program makes no sense, and will only re-ignite Cold War debates in Europe.

Darabos, of Austria's left-leaning Social Democratic party, told the Vienna newspaper Die Presse that he did not see any Iranian threat to Europe, and that the issue of that country's alleged nuclear weapons ambitions should be resolved through negotiations, as in the case of North Korea.

Responding at a news briefing, State Department Acting Spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos called the Austrian official's remarks unhelpful and said the U.S. missile defense plan reflects new, post-Cold War, realities:

"Such comments are not helpful, and we now face a new strategic environment that requires us to move beyond Cold-War thinking," he said.  "The proposed system under discussion with Poland and the Czech Republic is solely defensive in nature and is directed at emerging threats in the Middle East."

Russia has strongly objected to the U.S. plan, saying it would undercut its strategic nuclear deterrence, and in protest last month said it was suspending its role in a 1990 treaty limiting conventional forces in Europe.

Gallegos said the United States has been open and transparent in all its dealings on the defense system and is conducting expert-level talks on the issue with Moscow, with a second round of that dialogue due to be held in September.

At a summit of the G-8 industrial powers in June, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed an alternative anti-missile plan between Russia and NATO, and offered to include in it a Russian radar site in Azerbaijan, which borders Iran.

Bush administration officials have been cool to the idea and have said the U.S. plan, involving the placement of 10 interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar site in the Czech Republic, is moving forward.

The issue is expected to dominate an unusual "two-plus-two" meeting, planned for early October in Moscow, of the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense and their Russian counterparts.

Czech Republic Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg also challenged the Austrian Defense Minister's criticism of the plan, saying it has never been a provocation and is needed to ensure the security of all of Europe.

Neither the Czech nor Polish governments has given final approval to host the U.S. system, but both are expected to do so by the end of the year. U.S. officials hope the system can be operational by 2012, though skeptical congressional Democrats are trying to slash funding for it.