WARSAW — Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a missile defense deal with Poland on Wednesday and predicted that future presidents would not undo the controversial program.
Speaking to reporters, Rice said that though legally the pact could be voided by a future White House, it has a rationale and diplomatic momentum that make that unlikely.
"I believe that the administrations of the future will recognize both the threat that we face and the substantial commitment that our allies have now taken for missile defense," she told a Polish journalist.
When the Bush administration entered office, it placed top priority on the goal of developing the missile defense program in such a way that it could not be dismantled.
The U.S.-Polish effort is part of a controversial worldwide antimissile program that critics consider unworkable and destabilizing. In the late 1990s, the Clinton administration slowed the program because of concern about its value.
Rice cited U.S. concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions as the rationale for the antimissile program, and the willingness of Poland and the Czech Republic to participate as the momentum for the effort.
Rice signed the deal, which culminates a year and a half of talks, with Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. Polish President Lech Kaczynski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk were also present.
Kaczynski declared that the deal "strengthens the global positioning of the most powerful country in the world." Rice called it a "landmark."
Under the agreement, the United States will build and operate 10 interceptor missiles in Poland that the administration says are intended for shooting down any long-range missiles from nations such as Iran.
Russian officials believe that though the plan is modest, it is the first step in construction of a huge interceptor system that could neutralize Russia's vast missile force, leaving it vulnerable to a first-strike nuclear attack.
They have reacted angrily, and a Russian general said last week that by approving the deal Poland was opening itself to a potential Russian nuclear attack.
Rice responded Wednesday to that threat by saying such comments "border on the bizarre."
The Poland-based interceptors would work in conjunction with a planned U.S. radar system in the Czech Republic that would track missiles.
Two Polish governments have weighed the U.S. proposal, in light of the risk of antagonizing a powerful neighbor that previously has overrun their nation. Polish officials intermittently suggested that the deal might be scuttled.
But Russia's military advance into Georgia on Aug. 8 has strengthened Polish public support for the deal. It was less than 50% for many months, but is now more than 60%, a Polish poll showed.
Polish officials believe that though their country is already a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, this program will give them an added measure of commitment from the United States. Along with the 10 long-range interceptor missiles, they will receive a Patriot missile battery, staffed by the U.S. Army, that will be designed to protect against short-range missiles and warplanes.
The Patriot battery is to be deployed next year, and by 2012 the U.S. is to build a garrison to protect it.
The deal as signed was exactly as it was when announced last week, officials said.
Rice and Sikorski also signed a separate "strategic cooperation agreement" that the State Department said would "elevate cooperation to a new and higher level."
A statement said that the U.S. remained committed to helping improve Poland's military forces.