WASHINGTON The United States will seek another site for its European missile defense project if talks with Poland fail, a senior U.S. official said on Friday.
In an interview with Reuters, the official stressed he was still optimistic about the talks to put 10 missile interceptors in Poland, even though some hard issues remained unresolved.
"But if we are unsuccessful, we will certainly respect their sovereignty, and we will pursue alternatives -- another option to a location for the interceptor site, simply because we need to deal with the (missile) threat," he said, speaking on condition that he not be identified.
Washington wants to install the interceptor rockets in Poland and a tracking radar in the Czech Republic to shield the United States and its allies from attack by what it calls "rogue" states, particularly Iran. Russia opposes the plan.
Poland has set tough conditions for its agreement, including that the United States spend billions of dollars on modernizing Polish air defenses.
The talks with the Czechs on the radar are finished, and that agreement is expected to be signed soon, although the outlook for parliamentary approval is uncertain.
The Bush administration is keen to finalize the Polish deal before President George W. Bush's term in office ends in January -- a fact some Polish officials believe gives them leverage to press their demands.
But the senior U.S. official said Washington also wants to push ahead with the project because "our perception is that there is a threat that is growing from Iran and we need to deal with that threat."
He said NATO allies had recognized the threat when they endorsed a missile shield for Europe at a summit in Bucharest last month.
INTERCEPTORS IN POLAND
The official declined to discuss where the interceptors could go, if not Poland. But U.S. officials have said that before the Czech Republic and Poland were selected as locations, other European countries were considered.
Discussions with Poland have dragged on for months. A U.S. team was in Warsaw last month to discuss air defense issues, and more talks are planned for next week. U.S., Polish, Czech and NATO officials are expected to attend a conference on missile defense in Prague next week.
Russia has denounced the project as destabilizing, and many people in European countries doubt whether it is needed.
At a summit in Sochi, Russia, last month, Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin failed to resolve their differences over the missile shield, although Bush said the United States would continue to try to assuage Russian concerns.
Russia has demanded to have its experts monitor sites on a permanent basis. The senior U.S. official said Washington suggested a compromise that would allow Russian "liaisons" accredited to embassies in Poland and the Czech Republic to go to the sites periodically for inspections.
He said the Czechs and Poles supported this idea, and there had been some positive reaction from the Russians, although they would "obviously like more."
Some kind of technical monitoring of the sites such as cameras might also be possible, he said.
"At the end of the day though, this is Polish territory, and Czech territory, and those governments will have the final say about what occurs in their country, including with respect to the Russians -- as well as the Americans who will be at these sites," the official said.
While Russia did not have a veto, it was important for Washington to try to ease Moscow's worries, the official said.
"The central reason for doing it, is that we think we've got an awfully important relationship with Russia," he said.
(Editing by David Storey)