PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) – The Bush administration has told Moscow it may delay activation of a proposed U.S. missile defense system in Europe until it has “definitive proof” that Iran poses a missile threat, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday.

A senior Russian official repeated the Kremlin view that the U.S. misreads Iran’s missile potential. And in Washington, President Bush asserted that a U.S.-linked missile defense system is urgently needed in Europe, illustrating the depth of the divide between former Cold War adversaries.

“We need to take it seriously – now,” Bush said of the possibility Iran will gain the ability to attack Europe.

Bush said intelligence estimates show Iran could have the ability to strike the U.S. and European allies by 2015. The Americans say the Russian estimate is 2015 to 2020.

Russia has long opposed U.S. missile defenses, which currently are limited to a fledgling system based mainly in Alaska, California and Colorado, on grounds that it might undermine the deterrent value of its nuclear arsenal. More broadly, Moscow worries at steps toward closer U.S.-European security ties.

As for the proposal Gates described Tuesday, the Russians have expressed interest but not agreement.

At a news conference after meeting with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, Gates said the U.S. would proceed with current plans to build a missile interceptor base in Poland and an associated radar in the Czech Republic, but it might be willing to wait before activating them.

“We would consider tying together activation of the sites in Poland and the Czech Republic with definitive proof of the threat – in other words, Iranian missile testing and so on,” Gates said with Topolanek at his side.

The Bush administration has been negotiating with Prague and Warsaw over terms of basing. The Russians have pressed the U.S. to freeze the negotiations, but Gates insisted that won’t happen.

“We have not fully developed this proposal, but the idea was we would go forward with the negotiations, we would complete the negotiations, we would develop the sites, build the sites, but perhaps delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran,” the defense chief said.

By “activating,” Gates meant, in simplest terms, switching on the network of communication links that tie the missile interceptors together with radars for tracking and hitting a ballistic missile in flight.

The White House strained to reconcile the tone of Gates’ comments with Bush’s speech, although press secretary Dana Perino said Bush and Gates were essentially “talking about the same thing.”

Perino said the administration plans to keep pursuing a diplomatic solution to the nuclear standoff with Iran, suspected of seeking to develop atomic weapons. At the same time, there will be no slowdown in plans to get the missile defense system operating in Europe, in consultation with U.S. allies, she said.

“We are going to continue the lay the ground work,” Perino said. “And if we get to the point where Iran decides that they do not want to have a nuclear weapon, where we can verify that, then we might decide that it wouldn’t be necessary eventually.”

In his speech on missile defense Tuesday, Bush dedicated a passage toward trying to ease Russian concerns. “Russia is not our enemy,” he said. “We’re building a new security relationship whose foundation does not rest on the prospect of mutual annihilation.”

In Warsaw, Poland’s deputy foreign minister and top missile defense negotiator Witold Waszczykowski said his government has not yet discussed the proposal with the U.S. but hopes Russia will accept.

Asked why Washington made the offer, Waszczykowski said: “To answer Russia’s paranoid fears, it seems like the Americans undertook a sort of desperate attempt to pull Russia into a sort of game of ways to build trust.”

In Tokyo, Russian Foreign Minster Sergey Lavrov said U.S.-led missile defense initiatives in Europe and Asia are based on an erroneous assessment of the threat posed by Iran.

“North Korea poses a fundamental threat, but Iran does not,” Lavrov was quoted as telling Japanese Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.

U.S. officials said the proposal tying activation of the European sites to proof of an Iranian threat was presented to the Russians by Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earlier this month. Gates’ remarks in Prague were the most specific and clear that such a proposition raises the prospect of delay.

Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell, who attended Gates’ talks with Topolanek, said Washington wants to address Moscow’s concerns and reach agreement on how imminent the Iranian threat is.

“As much as we wish to help the Russians better appreciate the threat as we do, this proposal does not mean they will have a veto” over U.S. missile defense plans, Morrell said.

If at the point where the European system is ready, as early as 2011, the U.S. government sees a clear and present threat from Iranian missiles and the Russians do not, then the U.S. will be prepared to activate the system, Morrell said.

Gates described a related proposal to the Russians that might mean allowing a Russian presence at U.S. missile defense bases, including at the Polish and Czech sites. He said this was presented to the Russians in the interest of making as transparent as possible to Moscow how the sites operate.

Asked if the Czech government would accept having Russians on his territory, Topolanek said “no comment” through an interpreter.

The U.S. hopes to have the missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic ready for limited operation by 2011 and fully operational by 2013, despite opposition by many in Congress.

AP-ES-10-23-07 1527EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.