PRAGUE: President Barack Obama has decided to scrap plans for a U.S. missile defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland that had deeply angered Russia, the Czech prime minister confirmed Thursday.
NATO's new chief hailed the move as "a positive step" and a Russian analyst said Obama's decision will increase the chances that Russia will cooperate more closely with the United States in the dispute over Iran's nuclear program.
Premier Jan Fischer told reporters 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.
He said Obama assured him that the "strategic cooperation" between the Czech Republic and the U.S. would continue, and that Washington considers the Czechs among its closest allies.
In Poland, officials declined to confirm Fischer's remarks, saying they were waiting for a formal announcement from Washington.
The plan, proposed by the Bush administration, aimed to defend the United States and its European allies against a possible missile attack from Iran or elsewhere in the Middle East. In all, 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 U.S. interceptor rockets in countries so close to its territory, and the Obama administration has sought to improve strained ties with the Kremlin.
"The U.S. president's decision is a well-thought (out) 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."
"Now we can talk about restoration of (the) strategic partnership between Russia and the United States," Kosachev added.
Alexei Arbatov, head of the Russian Academy of Science's Center for International Security, told a Moscow radio station on Thursday that the U.S. 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.
Czechs and Poles, along with some other Eastern Europeans, have complained of what many perceive as neglect by the Obama administration.
That, in turn, has prompted a U.S. diplomatic effort to reassure the countries that America — which helped liberate them from decades of communist-era isolation and helped bring them into NATO — still values them as friends and partners.
Fischer said after a review of the missile defense system, the U.S. 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.
Obama took office undecided about 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.
Obama himself had hinted that the U.S. was rethinking the plan. In a major foreign policy speech in April in Prague, he said Washington would proceed with developing the system as long as Iran posed a threat to U.S. and European security.
But a top military leader, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, recently suggested that the U.S. may have underestimated how long it would take Iran to develop long-range missiles.
The Czech government had stood behind the planned radar system despite fierce opposition from the public, which staged numerous protests.
Critics feared 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 Cartwright, the 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 U.S. 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.