WASHINGTON, March 23 The United States should seek Russian cooperation on defending against the threat of Iranian missiles, the head of the Senate Armed Services Committee said on Monday.
Senator Carl Levin said simply beginning serious discussions with Russia about missile cooperation would send a powerful signal to Iran and could help repair strained U.S.-Russian relations.
"We have a new opportunity to seek a cooperative approach with Russia on missile defense and we should seize it," Levin told a conference on missile defense. "The upside potential of such an effort is huge -- a geopolitical game changer."
Moscow opposes a U.S. plan to place a missile interception system in Poland and the Czech Republic that Washington says is designed to counter threats from rogue states like Iran.
President Barack Obama has suggested the United States would have no need to deploy missile defenses in Eastern Europe if Moscow could help stop Iran from developing long-range weapons.
Levin acknowledged the disagreement between Moscow and Washington but said he was convinced that the security of each nation could be enhanced if they cooperated to address Iran's missile capabilities.
Levin said former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told a number of senators last week that a nuclear-armed Iran would be even more of a threat to Russia than the United States.
"A nuclear-armed Iran with ballistic missiles would be a threat to which Russia cannot be, and I believe, is not, indifferent," Levin said.
"Since we have a mutual security interest in addressing a shared security challenge, surely it is worth the effort to try," Levin added, noting that Defense Secretary Robert Gates had told his committee that NATO would welcome the effort.
Levin said Russia's offer to share early warning data from the Gabala radar in Azerbaijan would help augment existing U.S. radar capabilities for all ranges of missile defense.
He also called on the two countries to resolve differences over a U.S.-Russian missile data exchange center in Moscow that got bogged down in differences over tax and liability issues.
The senator said the Pentagon also needed to reform the way it acquired missile defense technologies, spending that amounts to over $10 billion each year.
Levin welcomed comments by the new director of the Missile Defense Agency, who said he planned to spend more on testing and evaluation than in the past.
For the past eight years, the program had been exempted from normal acquisition requirements and processes and the result had been extensive schedule delays and billions of dollars in additional cost, he said.
Boeing Co (BA.N), Lockheed Martin (LMT.N), Raytheon (RTN.N), Northrop (NOC.N) are key suppliers to the U.S. missile defense program.
(Editing by Eric Beech)