U.S. Senator Says Time to Seek Russia's Aid on Iran

WASHINGTON — A senior U.S. senator said Friday that he believes the time is ripe for the United States to pursue a new partnership with Russia aimed at defending against Iranian missiles.

Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said his talks with President Barack Obama's advisers, including a private conversation with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, led him to believe that they are open to the idea. Levin said pushing for the cooperative effort would be among his top priorities this year on the committee, which helps oversee the Pentagon's $600 billion-plus annual budget.

"There is potential here for a real breakthrough in terms of our relationship with Russia" by focusing on building a capability that would intercept an Iranian missile, Levin told reporters.

Levin said a united front between the two countries also could help deter Iran from pursuing a nuclear weapon.

"Russia clearly does not want that to happen, perhaps not as visibly or dramatically as we don't want it to happen," he said. "But nonetheless, it is not in Russia's interest — they clearly know it — that Iran get a nuclear weapon."

The United States already has tried to entice Russia's cooperation on missile defense in Central Europe by casting the construction of interceptors in Poland and tracking radar in the Czech Republic as protection for Moscow against an Iranian missile.

But Russia remains opposed to the program, which it contends is aimed not at Iran but at its own massive nuclear arsenal.

Levin said he was interested to hear of an Interfax report earlier in the week that Moscow might back off from its threat to deploy Iskander missiles near the Polish border.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry knocked down that possibility Friday, saying the threat still stands if the new U.S. administration moves ahead with plans, pressed by former President George W. Bush, to deploy the interceptor missiles and radar.

The ministry said in a statement, however, that "we are convinced that there is a reasonable alternative to the deployment … in the form of multilateral cooperation on an equal basis involving Russia, the U.S. and European countries, which should begin with a joint analysis of missile threats. We are ready to develop such cooperation. Our proposals on this score are well-known. They remain in full force."

Obama has not been explicit in public about whether he plans to go ahead with the missile-systems project. He has indicated that he might support it if it were proved to be workable.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a congressional hearing last week that he has tried talking to Russian officials about the issue and agrees that "there's some real opportunities here."

But, as Gates also pointed out, there remains much disagreement on just how much of a threat Iran poses.

"I think the Russians have an unrealistic view of the time line when an Iranian missile with the range to attack much of Russia and much of Europe will be available," Gates said.