Obama Denies Letter to Russia Contained Any 'Quid Pro Quo'

Once-secret letter from Obama on Iran is the talk of official Washington.

March 3, 2009, 1:10 PM

Mar. 3, 2009— -- President Obama acknowledged today that he sent a secret letter to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev that discussed America's missile defense shield, but denied reports that it suggested a "quid pro quo" that would scrap the plan in exchange for Russian help in blocking Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

It was a "very lengthy letter talking about a whole range of issues, from nuclear proliferation to how are we going to deal with a set of common security concerns along the Afghan border and terrorism. And what I said in the letter is the same thing that I've said publicly, which is that the missile defense that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran," Obama said during a photo opportunity with British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. "That has always been the concern, that you had potentially a missile from Iran that threatened either the United States or Europe."

Earlier, however, U.S. officials with knowledge of the letter's content confirmed to ABC News a story first reported in the New York Times that Obama suggested the missile defense shield in Eastern Europe would be unnecessary if international efforts, including Russia's, ensured that Iran would not acquire nuclear weapons.

The letter was delivered to Moscow in early February by Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns.

Obama was vague about the response from Russia, saying that the administration has had a good exchange with the Russians and that the two countries "have areas of common concern."

The U.S. State Department would not confirm the letter contained an offer for Moscow, and said that it only outlined the U.S. position that the missile system is aimed at Iran and not Russia.

"The president did send a letter. And it was to explain our position on missile defense," said State Department acting deputy spokesman Gordon Duguid.

"I am not divulging the contents of the letter at all, and nor am I affirming the story that's out there in the media that there's some sort of grand bargain going on here. We explained clearly our position that missile defense is in response to the Iranian threat that we perceive," Duguid added.

U.S. officials, however, insist the letter did say the missile shield plans would not be pursued if Iran's nuclear ambitions are curbed.

"The letter addressed a broad range of issues including the issue of missile defense as it relates to Iran," an official tells ABC News. "The missile defense deployment is in response to an Iranian threat. If the Iranian threat is removed there is no longer a need for the deployment of the Missile defense system."

According to the Interfax News Agency, Medvedev told reporters at a press conference in Madrid today that "No one links these issues to any exchange, especially on the Iran issue. We are working very closely with our U.S. colleagues on the issue of Iran's nuclear program."

Medvedev's spokeswoman Natalya Timakova also confirmed the letter had been received, but said it contained no "specific proposals."

"Obama's letter contains various proposals and assessments of the current situation," she said, according to Interfax. "But the message did not contain any specific proposals or mutually binding initiatives."

Sour Issue

In an interview with ABC News today, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she would not get into the details of the "private letter" but said that there are a broad range of issues that she will discuss when she meets with her Russian counterparts in Geneva on Friday.

"Among the issues we wanted to discuss is the threat posed by Iran. Iran's pursuit of the nuclear weapon is deeply troubling to not only the U.S., but many people throughout the world. We are trying to enlist the assistance of every nation to put the pressure on Iran so that it will cease its nuclear program," Clinton said. "It has also been the case for a number of years that U.S. has offered to work on that with the Russians in a joint approach."

Clinton said it would be important to "air these issues" and have an "open exchange as possible" when she meets the Russian delegation and when Obama meets Medvedev for the first time in April.

"What we are seeking is a relationship with Russia where we can find areas to work with and cooperate, we think after vetting this issue with them, dealing with Iran can be one of them," she said.

Both Iran's nuclear ambitions and the U.S. missile shield plans have been contentious issues on the U.S.-Russian agenda and soured relations between the two countries in recent years.

Moscow has said it felt threatened by the placement of a U.S. missile system in its backyard, and threatened to retaliate by placing its own missiles in its enclave in Kaliningrad.

In the interview, Clinton reiterated the Bush administration's stance that the missile defense deployment in Europe is a defensive measure against Iran, not Russia.

"We are also concerned about nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands ... they end up in the possession of terrorists groups. So missile defense has the potential for being part of our overall defense and when I say overall, I mean not only U.S., but in Europe ... indeed Russia and other countries united against the threat of nuclear weapons."

Washington, meanwhile, has reportedly felt that Russia has played a more obstructive rather than constructive role in deterring Iran's nuclear weapons efforts. Both the United States and Russia have been part of an international effort, known as the P5+1, to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons

The move by the Obama administration marks a departure from Bush administration, which pursued the missile defense shield despite Russian concerns. Since assuming the presidency, President Obama has repeated his desire to work with Russia and forge a new relationship with the former Cold War adversary.

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