US President Barack Obama on Thursday shelved a Bush-era plan for an Eastern European missile defense plan that has been a major irritant in US relations with Russia. He said a redesigned defensive system would be cheaper, quicker and more effective against the threat from Iranian missiles.
"Our new missile defense architecture in Europe will provide stronger, smarter and swifter defenses of American forces and America's allies," Obama said in an announcement from the White House. "It is more comprehensive than the previous program; it deploys capabilities that are proven and cost effective, and it sustains and builds upon our commitment to protect the US homeland."
The missile defense system, planned under the Bush administration, was to have been built in the Czech Republic and Poland. Obama phoned Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer on Wednesday night and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on Thursday to alert them of his decision.
Obama said the plan was scrapped in part because, after a review, the US has concluded that Iran is less focused on developing the kind of long-range missiles for which the system was originally developed, making the building of an expensive new shield unnecessary. New technology also has arisen that military advisers decided could be deployed sooner and more effectively, he said.
Anticipating certain criticism from the right that he was weakening US security, Obama said repeatedly that this decision would provide more - not less - protection.
"I'm committed to deploying strong missile defense systems that are adaptable to the threats of the 21st century," the president said.
He said the US will continue to work cooperatively with what he called "our close friends and allies" - the Czech Republic and Poland, which had agreed to host the Bush-planned shield at considerable cost in public opinion and their relations with Russia.
He also made a pointed reference to Russia and its long and heated objections to the shield. "Its concerns about our previous missile defense programs were entirely unfounded," Obama said.
Still, the decision could - and mostly likely will - be read as at least in part as an effort to placate Russia at a time when its support against Iran's suspected nuclear program has not been forthcoming and is sorely needed.
NATO's new chief hailed the move as "a positive step" and a Russian analyst said the move will increase the chances that Russia will cooperate more closely with the United States in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
Last week, The Jerusalem Post reported that the Defense Ministry was preparing for the possibility that the United States would decide to deploy missile defense systems in Israel.
Senior officials told the Post that the United States might leave missile defense systems in Israel following a joint missile defense exercise the two countries will hold next month.
While the US has yet to announce that it will leave systems in place here, the possibility is strong, one official had said, particularly in light of reports that the Pentagon had been conducting a review of its European missile shield and was leaning towards deploying the systems in Turkey.
Premier Jan Fischer told reporters on Thursday that Obama phoned him overnight to say that "his government is pulling out of plans to build a missile defense radar on Czech territory."
"The same happened with Poland. Poland was informed in the same way about this intention," Fischer said.
Under the plan, which had been proposed by the Bush administration to defend the United States and its European allies against a possible missile attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East, 10 interceptor rockets were to have been stationed in Poland and a radar system based in the Czech Republic.
But Russia was livid over the prospect of having US interceptor rockets in countries so close to its territory, and the Obama administration has sought to improve strained ties with the Kremlin.
A top Russian lawmaker praised the move.
"The US president's decision is a well-thought and systematic one," said Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the State Duma, the lower house of the Russian parliament. "It reflects understanding that any security measure can't be built entirely on the basis of one nation."
Fischer said Obama assured him that the "strategic cooperation" between the Czech Republic and the US would continue, and that Washington considers the Czechs among its closest allies.
Fischer said after a review of the missile defense system, the US now considers the threat of an attack using short- and mid-range missiles greater than one using long-range rockets.
"That's what the Americans assessed as the most serious threat," and Obama's decision was based on that, he said.
In Poland, officials declined to confirm Fischer's remarks, saying they were waiting for a formal announcement from Washington.
Obama took office undecided about whether to continue to press for the European system and said he would study it. His administration never sounded enthusiastic about it, and European allies have been preparing for an announcement that the White House would not complete the shield as designed.
Alexei Arbatov, head of the Russian Academy of Science's Center for International Security, told a Moscow radio station Thursday that the US was giving in on missile defense to get more cooperation from Russia on Iran.
"The United States is reckoning that by rejecting the missile-defense system or putting it off to the far future, Russia will be inclined together with the United States to take a harder line on sanctions against Iran," he said.
The Czech government had stood behind the planned radar system despite fierce opposition from the public, which has staged numerous protests.
Critics fear the Czech Republic would be targeted by terrorists if it agreed to host the radar system, which was planned for the Brdy military installation 90 kilometers (55 miles) southwest of Prague, the capital.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Robert Gates scheduled a news conference Thursday with a top military leader, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, who has been a point man on the technical challenge of arraying missiles and interceptors to defend against long-range missiles.
The decision to scrap the plan will have future consequences for US relations with Eastern Europe.
"If the administration approaches us in the future with any request, I would be strongly against it," said Jan Vidim, a lawmaker with Czech Republic's conservative Civic Democratic Party, which supported the missile defense plan.