The secret letter

The NYT reports that "President Obama sent a secret letter to Russia’s president last month suggesting that he would back off deploying a new missile defense system in Eastern Europe if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons." A senior administration official described the contents of the letter somewhat cryptically, implying that the deal was all or nothing: that if the US undertook to suspend missile defense in Eastern Europe then the Russians would have to make the Iranian threat "go away".

“It’s almost saying to them, put up or shut up,” said a senior administration official. “It’s not that the Russians get to say, ‘We’ll try and therefore you have to suspend.’ It says the threat has to go away.”

Moscow has not responded, but a Russian official said Monday that Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov would have something to say on missile defense to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton when they meet Friday in Geneva. Mr. Obama and Mr. Medvedev will then meet for the first time on April 2 in London, officials said Monday.

But the NYT article muddies the waters a few paragraphs down, suggesting that Obama's fallback position was to install a missile defense system inside Russia in order to assure the Kremlin that it could never intercept Moscow's own missiles.

The plan to build a high-tech radar facility in the Czech Republic and deploy 10 interceptor missiles in Poland — a part of the world that Russia once considered its sphere of influence — was a top priority for President George W. Bush to deter Iran in case it developed a nuclear warhead to fit atop its long-range missiles. Mr. Bush never accepted a Moscow proposal to install part of the missile defense system on its territory and jointly operate it so it could not be used against Russia.

Now the Obama administration appears to be reconsidering that idea, although it is not clear if it would want to put part of the system on Russian soil where it could be flipped on or off by Russians. Mr. Obama has been lukewarm on missile defense, saying he supports it only if it can be proved technically effective and affordable.

The NYT article raises a number of interesting issues. Before all else it is a tacit admission that missile defense is effective enough -- despite all the pooh-poohing it has received -- to be considered a bargaining chip. Otherwise BHO would not be offering to sacrifice it. But to return to the proposals, the first question is why the Obama administration should think that the Russians could make the Iranian threat "go away" unless it also believed that Moscow was Iran's puppet-master. That would suggest Iran was really a proxy of Moscow in a new Cold War. How plausible this view is, given the historical rivalry between the Persians and the Russians and their competition in the natural gas sphere is open to question. It is far more likely that Teheran and Moscow agree to cooperate from time to time when they want to discomfit the United States.

The proposal is obviously driven by the idea that Russia can be "peeled away" from Teheran by buying it off with concessions. During my recent trip to Lebanon, it was often bruited about that Obama would try to "peel off" Syria from Iran by offering it some unspecified goody.  This endeavor is now apparently in high gear. The Times Online reports that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is offering Syria the Hand of Friendship. But you can bet the Syrians will want more than Hillary's Hand of Friendship. They will want Lebanon, or the Golan, or the Shaba Farms or all of the above, plus money. In the end Syria may double deal and go by to Teheran. The words "I lied" have been uttered before.

The second issue arising from a missle defense for Russian technological assistance swap is whether such an arrangement could ever be a fair. After all, it is easy to verify a non-deployment of US missiles in Eastern Europe, but how do you verify non-assistance by Russia when it could take the form of technology or knowledge transfer, which can't easily be measured? In other words, assuming the Obama administration could make a deal with Moscow to stop helping Teheran in exchange for stopping missile defense in Eastern Europe, how could they make sure the Russians wouldn't cheat? It is far easier to restart technological help than it is is to pour concrete. There would be an asymmetry in the stability of concessions. That is, unless it was understood the Russians would pretend to comply and the US would pretend not to notice.

A second set of issues emerges if the Obama administration plans to deploy an advanced ABM radar in Russia, as the NYT describes. Quite apart from letting the Russians know how it works, it doesn't protect the US or Western Europe from an Iranian attack made by arrangement with Moscow. It would give Russia long-term leverage over the security of the West against rogue nuclear weapons. It would hand them a chip they could use to negotiate against the US down the track. It is a little bit like supplying the noose you may be hung in. And if Moscow never arranges to collude with Teheran, it will have a de facto veto over the facility's use, just as host countries have wherever American installations exist. Whether or not the US gives Russia the right to flip the switch on the facility, the fact of its location within Russia means the Kremlin will effectively have the power to shut it down. They could, for instance, simply put an artillery round on the radome, in the extreme.

The perhaps the most curious issue is the existence of the story itself. This leak means that someone in the administration was either (1) floating a trial balloon or (2) horrified that this was going forward. Either way it is something to watch.


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