WASHINGTON AND MOSCOW — Having shifted to diplomacy to counter Iran's missile program, President Obama now faces the challenge of turning a still-suspicious Russia into a partner in efforts to contain the Islamic Republic.
Obama said Thursday that the United States would cancel a radar installation in the Czech Republic and ground-based interceptors planned for Poland, both of which the George W. Bush administration had proposed to protect Europe from Iranian long-range missiles. Instead, the Obama administration intends to boost defenses against short- and medium-range missiles, which it believes Iran to be developing more quickly.
Russia had long objected to the missile installations envisioned on its doorstep, and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin praised the shift Friday.
The Obama administration, despite having no public guarantees, was betting that Moscow would accept the overture and as a result would increase pressure on Iran. The White House gamble suggests that senior administration officials hope that, tensions aside, the United States and Russia will agree that they have a common interest in opposing Iran's missile development and halting its nuclear program.
But Moscow does not view Iran through the same lens that Washington does, and it is much less concerned that the Islamic Republic is a direct threat. And some experts believe that the U.S. is putting too much hope on its diplomatic abilities.
Obama administration officials justified the new missile defense stance in part by what they said was a new intelligence assessment that Iran's development of long-range missiles was slowing.
But that assertion surprised some experts. Henry "Trey" Obering III, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and former head of the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, said Iran's satellite launch and solid-rocket tests this year signaled to him that the Islamic Republic was continuing to make progress.
"I am very surprised by the new intelligence assessment. It is dramatically different from what we were told last spring. To me it flies in the face of what is observable," Obering said.
He said he believes that the Obama administration is counting on the decision to cancel the ground-based interceptors to give a boost to a diplomatic offensive. That strategy, he said, could be risky, as was learned through the Clinton administration's ultimately unsuccessful efforts to halt North Korean weapons programs.
"They are counting very heavily on Russia being able to influence the Iranians to disarm or not pursue a nuclear program. There are a lot of eggs in that basket," Obering said.
Administration officials said they were not abandoning missile defense, arguing that the new system would better defend against immediate threats and that planned technological developments would allow the system to counter longer-range weapons.
"None of what was decided on missile defense was predicated on the notion that you could solve the problem through diplomacy and therefore you could take a risk," said one official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak for the record.
The Obama administration has pushed to "reset" relations with Russia. Canceling a project that Russia viewed as a direct threat was a dramatic gesture.
But it is not clear how much assistance Moscow is willing to offer the U.S. in pressuring Iran. The Kremlin has given signs of expecting U.S. policy shifts without having to make any equivalent moves.
"The latest decision by President Obama . . . has positive implications," Putin, who is widely regarded as the most powerful Russian official, said in remarks carried on state news media. "And I very much hope that this very right and brave decision will be followed by others."
Dimitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington and an expert on Russia, said senior Russian officials had made it clear privately that if they believed a genuine partnership with the U.S. was in the offing, they could be "somewhat more accommodating" on Iran.
Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are to meet Wednesday at the United Nations, and Simes predicted that Russia would back some sanctions against Iran, even if it continued to oppose sweeping economic restrictions.
"We have the right signals coming from Moscow," he said.
The administration official said that there had been no discussions with the Russians about tying a tougher stance on Iran to the U.S. shift on missile defense.
"I don't know, and I don't think any of us know, what the Russian current thinking is vis-a-vis imposing greater sanctions on Iran. We haven't gone to them to request it," the official said.
In Brussels, the new NATO secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said disagreements between Russia and the alliance would not disappear overnight.
"However, I do believe that it is possible for NATO and Russia to make a new beginning and to enjoy a far more productive relationship in the future," Rasmussen said.
He called on NATO and Russia to expand their cooperation in fighting terrorism, halting weapons proliferation and on missile defense.
"Both NATO and Russia have a wealth of experience in missile defense," Rasmussen said. "We should now work to combine this experience to our mutual benefit."
In a news conference in Brussels, Russia's envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Dmitry Rogozin, called Rasmussen's comments positive and constructive.
In response to Washington's moves, Russia will cancel plans to field short-range missiles near Poland, Rogozin said, suggesting that further joint work on missile defense was possible. "Cooperation with Russia is not a matter of choice but of necessity," he said.