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Analysis: Obama reaches out to Russia

'Not productive' to link US missile defense, Iran in talks: Medvedev
Madrid (AFP) March 3 - Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Tuesday that it was "not productive" to link talks over a US missile defense system in Europe with the perceived security threat from Iran as proposed by Washington. His comments during a state visit to Spain came after the White House said US President Barack Obama had written to his Russian counterpart about the relationship between US plans to deploy a missile defense system in Europe and the Iranian "threat." The New York Times reported Tuesday that Obama suggested in a secret letter to Medvedev that he would back off deployment of the missile defense shield if Moscow would help stop Iran from developing long-range missiles.

Speaking at a joint conference with the Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, Medvedev ruled out a quid-pro-quo approach to the talks, saying it would not be useful. "If we are to speak about some sort of exchange, the question has not been presented in such a way, because it is not productive," he said when asked about the letter Obama wrote to him. "Nobody is stipulating this with some sort of exchanges, all the more so relating to the Iran problem," he said, adding contacts between Moscow and Washington over Iran "have never slackened". Medvedev's spokeswoman told reporters in Madrid the letter Medvedev received from Obama did not contain any offers of a deal over Iran and missile defence.

"This letter was a response to a letter from the Russian leader. Medvedev valued the swiftness and the positive tone expressed in the letter," said spokeswoman Natalia Timakova said. "Obama's letter contains various offers and evaluations of the current situation. But regarding any concrete offers or mutually obligatory initiatives, such things were not contained in the letter," she added. In Washington, a senior US official confirmed President Barack Obama has written to Medvedev but offered no further details. Medvedev reaffirmed Russia's opposition to a US missile shield but said that Russia could discuss joint missile defense with the US and Europe. He also praised Obama's willingness to seek a compromise, saying they were in "constant touch". "Our American partners are ready to discuss this problem. I am expecting that those positive signals that we have received will be embodied in the agreements," he said.

US sanctions 11 companies with ties to Iran's Melli Bank
The US Treasury Department on Tuesday slapped sanctions on 11 companies linked to Iran's Bank Melli, which international officials allege supports nuclear and ballistic missile programs in the Islamic Republic. "The international community has recognized the proliferation risks posed by Iran's Bank Melli," said US undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence Stuart Levey. "We will continue to take steps to protect the integrity of the international financial system by exposing the banks, companies, and individuals supporting Iran's nuclear and missile programs," he said in a statement. The 11 targeted companies, eight of which are located in Tehran, are affiliated with Melli Bank. Bank Melli, Iran's largest bank, has been on a US list of companies sanctioned supporting Iran's alleged nuclear aspirations since 2007, and figures on a similar blacklist compiled by Australia and the European Union.

by Stefan Nicola
Berlin (UPI) Mar 3, 2009
President Obama's outreach to the Kremlin could successfully "reboot" relations with Russia, leading to a real reconciliation between the two nations, say Russian politicians and analysts.

Obama recently sent a personal letter to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It contained several policy "proposals" and "assessments" of the current political situation, a spokeswoman of Medvedev said Tuesday, according to Russian news agency Interfax.

There has been some significant speculation over the letter's exact wording. Obama on Tuesday corrected a New York Times report that had claimed the letter included an offer to ditch the controversial U.S. missile defense shield in exchange for Russian help to stop Iran's ambitions for nuclear missiles.

Obama said the letter did not include "some sort of quid pro quo" deal, but instead was a repetition of what he had previously stated about the missile shield -- that it was directed at Iran, and not Russia.

"And what I said in the letter was that, obviously, to the extent that we are lessening Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons, then that reduces the pressure for -- or the need for -- a missile defense system," Obama said. The president added he wanted to "reset or reboot the relationship" with Russia.

No matter what the literal content is, the Kremlin has been pleased by the letter and what Russia's president has made out to be an increased flexibility regarding the missile shield.

"Our American partners are willing to discuss this problem, and that's already a good thing," Medvedev said Tuesday in Madrid after meeting with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero. "Just a few months ago we were hearing different signals: The decision has been taken, there is nothing to talk about, we will do what we have decided."

While Medvedev -- in line with Obama -- said no trade-offs had been proposed in the letter, it is clear that Washington hopes for greater Russian engagement in persuading Iran to drop its nuclear program. The United States and Russia have shared interests in resolving the conflict, and successful joint diplomacy with Iran could be the start for better ties between the two powers, observers say.

But for that dream to become reality, a few roadblocks have to be hauled out of the way first.

The Kremlin has been extremely irritated by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's eastward expansion. Russia believes the alliance has turned from a security coalition into a geopolitical tool used by the United States to increase its political and economic clout in Eastern Europe.

"For Russia, NATO is a geopolitical challenge and a threat," Sergei Karaganov, chairman of Russia's Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, said Tuesday at an event of the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. "The expansion of NATO has become the main threat to European security."

Obama has promised to shake up U.S. foreign policy by trying to improve ties with the Kremlin. While he isn't expected to radically alter NATO's approach, a good start could be to scrap the controversial missile system, as Medvedev is just as opposed to the plan to station U.S. rockets in Poland and a radar unit in the Czech Republic as Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is.

The system could be a great bargaining chip, not least because experts close to the Obama camp have questioned its financial and practical feasibility. The logic seems to be: Why not give up a costly program we are not convinced about in the first place, and get friendly diplomacy in return?

The next steps to that strategy will likely be discussed at a meeting between Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday in Geneva, Switzerland -- the highest-level talks between the two powers since Obama took office.

Medvedev's spokeswoman said she hoped the meeting would culminate in "specific proposals that will subsequently form the basis for discussion" when Medvedev and Obama meet at the Group of 20 economic summit next month in London.

Alexander Rahr, a senior Russia expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations, said Tuesday in Berlin he expected "real improvements" for U.S.-Russian relations, resulting in greater implications for Russia's overall ties with the West.

"If Obama binds Russia into a new strategic alliance, then Europe will follow that direction," he said.

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Russia set against extending START treaty: Lavrov
Moscow (AFP) March 2, 2009
Moscow is set against extending the key nuclear arms treaty that expires in 2009, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday.

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