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December 19, 2007

NIE Bolsters Czech Opposition to US Radar Base

by Jim Lobe

PRAGUE - A report by U.S. intelligence services minimizing the Iranian threat has meant another embarrassment for Czech politicians supportive of U.S. plans to set up a radar base in Central-Eastern Europe.

The radar system – which Washington claims will protect the West from missile attacks by "rogue states" such as Iran and North Korea – would consist of a radar in the Czech Republic and an anti-missile base in Poland.

Contradicting the official U.S. line on Iran, the U.S. report said the Iranian clandestine nuclear arms program had been halted in 2003 following international supervision and pressure.

The report by the National Intelligence Estimate, which came out Dec. 3, says Iran still poses a threat, as it could develop nuclear weapons by 2010-2015.

Nevertheless, most analysts have interpreted the report as possibly indicating that the U.S. had exaggerated the threat for domestic reasons, and say it could herald a change in Washington's policy toward Iran.

But Czech government officials reacted publicly by insisting that the Iranian and other threats remains real, though their words also expressed a sense of frustration over the way the U.S. is treating one of its most faithful allies.

The Czech ministry of foreign affairs reacted in an official statement warning that the program could be resumed at any point. "The U.S. intelligence services' report will have no impact on the Czech government's position on further negotiations," reads the statement.

Tomas Klvana, the Czech government's spokesmen for the radar issue, warned that Iran was still working on ballistic missiles and enriching uranium with unclear purposes.

"Iran continues with the preparation of ballistic missiles with a range of 2,000 km that can also hit some European areas," Klvana said during a visit to Washington.

But the last months have been full of disappointments for pro-U.S. Czech politicians who feel the world's biggest superpower is not taking Prague seriously.

"The threat of Iran was used as the main argument by them," Jan Drahokoupil, analyst at the Czech Economy and Society Trust, told IPS. "It seems the U.S. did not bother to inform them about publishing the report."

Czech First Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar admitted that "our reservations about the way in which the USA speaks about individual affairs are very, very frequent."

"We have said we want to be informed in time about the broader security circumstances, not only on the affairs that are connected with the missile threats. We welcome it if we are informed in time about news of this sort," Pojar added.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who expects talks between Prague and Washington to culminate in an agreement by early 2008, also said he planned to voice Czech dissatisfaction to his U.S. counterpart Condoleezza Rice during a Dec. 7 meeting of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) foreign ministers in Brussels.

The minister was allegedly unable to voice his discontent to Rice.

Czech politicians had presented Iran as exemplifying the nuclear danger posed by "rogue states," but after the publishing of the U.S. reports Czech officials are defending the thesis that other unstable states could imperil the Western world.

"We have not presented Iran as the only threat, we have rather spoken about it as an example," Veronika Kuchynova-Smigolova, director of the security policy section at the Czech foreign ministry told the press.

Asked by a journalist why Iran had always been mentioned as the first threat, the official replied: "Because the Americans have mentioned it as the first."

Czech officials earlier reacted with surprise to a U.S. proposal that Russian officials could be allowed into Czech territory to monitor the radar. Czech politicians criticized the U.S. for not warning Prague in advance on the proposal, leaving Prague unprepared when reacting to questions by a shocked media and public opinion.

Since then both Czech and U.S. officials have stated that a Russian presence in the radar, which Czechs have not excluded as long as it is not of a military nature, would be conditional on Prague's consent.

But a recent U.S. Congress decision to cut $139 million from the budget for the base left many wondering whether the Czechs are rushing to welcome a base that not even the U.S. itself is sure it wants.

Warning the U.S. against delaying the project, Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Vondra sent a straight message to the U.S.: "You must take your allies seriously," he said.

Justifying his position during a conference hosted by the U.S.-based conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation, Vondra said that "for us in the Czech Republic, which lies between Germany and Russia, the presence of the radar and several American soldiers is a good thing."

But Drahokoupil thinks the government's and much of the media's insistent talk on a Russian threat is not genuine, and Czech government officials are not truly concerned about any Russian or Iranian threat.

"There is no geopolitics here; they are just trying to manufacture support for the U.S. base," he told IPS. "What's important is to take the U.S. side, whatever that means."

The opposition has welcomed the report with an ironic smile. Social Democrat Opposition leader Jiri Paroubek called the report "another argument to reject the radar" and advised the government to "temporarily interrupt talks with the U.S."

Social Democrat Jan Hamacek, chairman of the chamber of deputies' committee on foreign affairs, claimed that the report had trivialized arguments thus far used by the Czech government.

"The road of bilateral talks at any price and at the highest speed leads to a blind alley," he warned.

The plans for the radar are rejected by a wide majority of the public, and poll results released Dec. 12 show that the number of opponents has risen from 65 percent in June to 68 percent in November. The number of supporters has decreased by three percentage points during the same period, standing now at 25 percent of the population.

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  • Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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