U.S., Czech Republic reach missile defense deal

July 8, 2008 8:41:35 AM PDT
The United States and the Czech Republic on Tuesday signed an initial agreement to base a U.S. missile shield in Eastern Europe, saying the system will help protect U.S. allies from a bellicose and unpredictable Iran. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the shield is a good deal for the Czech Republic and for Poland, where the United States hopes to place another part of the system, although Warsaw hasn't yet agreed.

The next American president will have to decide whether and how to go forward with the missile defense system, Rice said, adding that the threat from Iran is growing and it is hard to imagine any administration giving up an effective deterrent.

"It's hard for me to believe that that's not a capability an American president is going to want to have," Rice said.

Rice signed the agreement along with Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg.

"This treaty will not only increase security of the Czech Republic but also of Europe," and beyond, Schwarzenberg said.

Rice has all but ruled out a stop in Poland this week to finalize plans for a U.S. missile defense shield in Europe, saying Tuesday that the United States has answered Polish demands for military hardware and the final agreement rests with Polish authorities.

The U.S. diplomat had hoped to make the week's visit in Eastern Europe a clean sweep for the unproven anti-missile defense system, which is bitterly opposed by Russia as an affront to its sovereignty and a potential threat should the system one day be used against Moscow.

"We are at a place where these negotiations need to come to a conclusion," Rice told reporters. There was little point in going to Warsaw unless the Poles were ready to move ahead, which appeared unlikely, Rice said.

The missile systems, which the United States says are a defense against long-range weapons from the Middle East and especially Iran, are highly unpopular in both the Czech Republic and in Poland, the former Soviet satellite states where the United States wants to place missiles and interceptors in the next five years.

"Ballistic missile proliferation is not an imaginary threat," Rice said after meeting Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek. She said Iran continues to perfect the tools it might one day use to build a bomb, along with long-range missiles that could carry a warhead.

The Bush administration is trying to arrange deals before President Bush leaves office in January.

The proposed U.S. missile defense system calls for a tracking radar in the Czech Republic and 10 interceptor missiles in Poland.

Talks with Poland had bogged down recently over Polish demands for billions of dollars worth of U.S. military aid, in part to deter a possible strike from a peeved Russia.

Rice's Czech host said he hopes his parliament will approve the deal, and noted that friction on the Polish side should not reflect on his own country's efforts.

"If the negotiations between the United States and Poland get complicated that doesn't mean that we failed but the contrary, that is our negotiations were very hard, realistic and led to a conclusion," Topolanek said.

Moscow has threatened to aim its own missiles at any eventual base in Poland or the Czech Republic.

Flying to Prague, Rice said she had laid out the U.S. position at a hastily called meeting in Washington with Poland's foreign minister. She would not go into details, but Poland is trying to sweeten or shore up U.S. pledges for millions in additional U.S. military aid. Rice said she explained what the United States can do and that the matter now rests with others for further discussion.

That marks a setback from last week when U.S. negotiators thought they had the outline of a deal that Rice could seal during a three-day trip to Eastern Europe. Warsaw rebuffed that tentative deal Friday, in strong language that U.S. diplomats said came as a surprise.

U.S. and Polish officials said talks would continue.

Even with signed deals in place it is not clear that the system would ever be built, or that it would be the effective counter to Iran that the United States claims.

There are still open negotiations on a second Czech treaty dealing with the legal status of U.S. soldiers to be deployed at the planned radar base. Even more difficult will be parliamentary approval for both documents.

The three-party governing coalition enjoys the support of only half of the 200 lawmakers in the Czech parliament's lower chamber, not enough to ratify any deal. About two-thirds of Czechs say they oppose the missile defense deal, according to a number of polls.

The government plans to submit the deal with U.S. to the parliament for a heated and lengthy debate only after the next general elections planned for 2010.


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