U.S. Defence Secretary hints at "delay" in implementing missile defence

Robert Gates and Mirek Topolanek, photo: CTK

The United States Defence Secretary Robert Gates said in Prague on Tuesday that the U.S. might consider delaying the activation of its proposed missile defence shield in Central Europe until Washington had "definitive proof" of a missile threat from Iran. Mr Gates was speaking in Prague after a meeting with the Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek to discuss the missile defence proposals, which have deeply angered Russia.

Robert Gates and Mirek Topolanek,  photo: CTK
Secretary Gates' suggestion appeared to be a slight departure from U.S. policy on missile defence. As President George W. Bush was telling the National Defence University in Washington that the need for missile defence was "real" and "urgent" because of the threat from Iran, Mr Gates was suggesting in Prague that the U.S. might go ahead and build the facilities but not activate them until there was "definitive proof" of an Iranian threat.

Mr Gates also said there was a suggestion on the table for a Russian "presence" at the proposed Czech radar base, which would work in tandem with a battery of interceptor missiles across the border in Poland. He stressed the invitation would only be made with the consent of the Czech government.

It wasn't clear whether that consent would be forthcoming. Mr Topolanek, standing at his side, declined to comment on the suggestion. Judging by the reaction from MPs polled by Czech Television, however, it might be a difficult idea to sell. The American radar base, if it's ever built, will be located in a former military base used by Russian soldiers. The idea of Russian soldiers returning permanently to the Czech Republic, even as observers, is controversial.

As for the Russian reaction, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by the Russian news agency TASS as saying Moscow was willing to discuss suggestions regarding missile defence but had received no formal offer from Washington.

Mr Gates and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice received an icy reception when they went to Moscow earlier this month to try and calm Russian fears over missile defence. Mr Lavrov was quoted as telling the Japanese foreign minister this week that while North Korea presented a real missile threat, Iran did not. The gulf between Moscow and Washington over missile defence appears as wide as ever.