Opening a tricky diplomatic pas de deux with Russia, President Barack Obama has hinted he may scrap plans set by his predecessor to deploy a missile defence system in eastern Europe if Moscow uses its leverage with Iran to ensure it refrains from developing nuclear weapons.
The outlines of the concession were reportedly contained in a secret letter hand-delivered by a senior US diplomat to the Kremlin about three weeks ago, according to the New York Times.
While US officials did not shy from confirming the letter's existence, their Russian counterparts last night seemed intent on playing down its significance.
Against Russian objections, George Bush sought to use Czech and Polish territory to install interceptor missiles to protect European allies from possible nuclear strikes by Iran. Mr Obama is signalling that he is more interested in co-operation than confrontation on the missile issue – and on Iran.
How explicit a trade-off Mr Obama offered in the letter is open to debate. Yesterday, he said reducing Iran's commitment to nuclear weapons reduced the need for a missile shield. He said the New York Times "didn't accurately characterise the letter". Kommersant, the Moscow newspaper that broke the story, called the proposal "sensational" but Russian President Dmitry Medvedev denied it offered any direct quid pro quo regarding the missiles and Iran. To do so would be "unproductive".
Mr Obama, appearing alongside Gordon Brown in Washington, agreed that there was no explicit quid pro quo on the table for now. "What I said in the letter is the same thing I've said publicly, which is that the missile defence that we have talked about deploying is directed towards not Russia, but Iran.
"That has always been the concern – that you have potentially a missile from Iran that threatened either the United States or Europe."
Any deal between Russia and the US will take time. Officials said the issue is likely to be raised when Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev meet for the first time on the fringes of a Group of 20 economic summit in London on 2 April. Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, is expected to broach the topic with her Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in Geneva on Friday.
Earlier this week, Mr Lavrov urged the US to restore formal diplomatic ties with Iran, which continues to insist its nuclear production facilities are aimed at power generation only. "This would be an important element in stabilising the situation in the region," said Mr Lavrov.
But the US is interested above all in Russia and the need, in the words of the Vice-President, Joe Biden, to push the "reset" button to thaw ties. While Mr Obama may see good in recruiting Russia to help pressure Iran, he risks being seen as going soft on the Kremlin by critics at home.
There is little obvious downside in this game for Mr Medvedev, however. In Madrid, he welcomed the US change on the missile question. "Our American partners are ready to discuss this problem, and that's already positive," he said, adding, with a reference to Mr Bush, that several months ago "we were hearing different signals: The decision has been made, there is nothing to discuss, we will do what we have decided to do."
But Mr Medvedev was not ready to acknowledge that Mr Obama had made any explicit promises in return for Russia's help. "No, issues haven't been put that way, it would be unproductive."
That Mr Obama made some kind of approach is not in dispute. "We have received this letter," said Natalya Timakova, a Kremlin spokeswoman. "It was in fact a reply to a letter from Medvedev sent to Obama after his appointment. The letter contained an assessment of the situation, but there were no concrete proposals about any mutually binding decisions."
Underscoring the change in Washington, Germany and the five permanent UN Security Council members – the US, Britain, France, Russia and China – issued a joint statement at a governors' meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency, endorsing a "direct dialogue" with Iran. "We remain firmly committed to a comprehensive diplomatic solution, including through direct dialogue," the statement said.
Mrs Clinton, speaking in Jerusalem, said: "What we have said specifically in regard to missile defence in Europe is that it has always been intended to deter any missiles that might come from Iran. It remains our position. We have explained that to the Russians before. There's a broad agenda to discuss with the Russians. We're going to be starting that on Friday."
Israeli officials confirmed a report in Haaretz that Israel was putting a series of proposals on Iran to Mrs Clinton, including that any dialogue with Iran should be preceded by tougher sanctions to ensure that Iran did not view any talks as acceptance of a nuclear programme.
*The US Treasury has widened sanctions against Iran's largest state bank by blacklisting 11 companies linked to Bank Melli, labelling them proliferators of weapons of mass destruction.Reuse content