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U.S. Scraps Missile Defense Plan That Riled Russia
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U.S. Scraps Missile Defense Plan That Riled Russia

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U.S. Scraps Missile Defense Plan That Riled Russia

U.S. Scraps Missile Defense Plan That Riled Russia
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President Obama confirms the Pentagon's announcement that a "major adjustment" will be made to a European missile defense plan that has been an irritant in relations with Russia.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep in Houston.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne at NPR West in California.

President Obama says the U.S. will take a new approach to missile defense, one that he says will address threats from Iran.

President BARACK OBAMA: Our clear and consistent focus has been the threat posed by Iran's ballistic missile program, and that continues to be our focus on the basis of the program that we're announcing today.

MONTAGNE: The president was speaking earlier this hour at the White House. His statement came after news that the U.S. is scraping plans for a missile shield program in Europe. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly is following the story and joins us now. Good morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Tell us more about the decision and what's behind it.

KELLY: Well, clearly this decision does mark a major adjustment to the U.S.'s defense systems in Europe. And what's going on is this, the whole point of these facilities originally has been to put them in Poland and the Czech Republic, specifically to protect against a threat from Iran.

What the president said this morning - you heard him there talking about missiles - and he said there is new intelligence which shows Iran is moving away from a long-range missile threat. And that's what these facilities were designed to counter. He said there is evidence that Iran is, however, stepping up efforts to develop short and medium-range missiles which could target, of course, U.S. forces in Europe, could target U.S. allies in Europe.

So, I think the thinking here is that the U.S. is adjusting its strategy, improving its strategy in Eastern Europe. Pentagon officials are saying this is in no way an abandonment of European missile defense. It's an improvement. That new technology means the U.S. can look, for example, to more sea-based interceptors, a combination of sea and land-based interceptors. And I think the thinking is as the threat from Iran changes, U.S. defenses will change.

MONTAGNE: And the other big factor in all of this, of course, has been Russia which considers this program a threat to it. How does that factor into the decision today?

KELLY: That's a big factor in the decision today, I think. I spoke to officials at the Pentagon this morning and they were stressing, look, these changes have nothing to do with Russia. They have everything to do with countering the threat from Iran.

That said, this plan, this planned program has been a huge irritant in U.S.-Russia relations for years. And it has distracted from what the U.S. really sees as a key priority which is scaling back Iran's nuclear weapons ambition. The U.S. would like to see Russia play a much more constructive role in slowing down Iran's nuclear weapons development. And the thinking is that perhaps if you can take this issue off the table, this issue being this missile defense shield plan for Eastern Europe, that perhaps you may be able to get Russia to step up, cooperate a bit more from the U.S. point of view in terms of slowing down Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

MONTAGNE: And is there indication that Russia will be persuaded to do that?

KELLY: Well, that is a key question. The short answer is, we don't know. The initial reaction out of Moscow to this morning's announcement has been that it's a positive sign, whether that will then translate into increased Russian cooperation on Iran and its nuclear program is yet to be seen.

I mean, we know Russia has been deeply involved in Iran's nuclear program. They have helped to build a nuclear reactor there, for example. They have helped to block stronger sanctions in the U.N. security council. So there's a delicate dance going on here. Clearly, the Obama administration is trying to think creatively about how to get Russia to start cooperating more. And perhaps this is one way that they may be able to prod it in that direction.

MONTAGNE: And Mary Louise, this announcement today marks a big reversal of the Bush administration's policy, doesn't it?

KELLY: I think it is a reversal. I mean, the Bush administration argued that missile defense in Eastern Europe was essential for countering the threat from Iran. And President Bush pursued that even though it was a toxic issue for years in U.S.-Russia relations. Now, again, the Obama administration says, not abandoning missile defense, just improving it. But still, this does mark a big reversal in national security policy.

MONTAGNE: That's Mary Louise Kelly on news this morning that the U.S. is scraping plans for a missile defense shield in Europe. Thanks very much.

KELLY: You're welcome, Renee.

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