The Bush administration sees missile defense as a central part of its legacy and thus has pressed aggressively to secure agreement to deploy a missile defense system in Central Europe. This has created tensions with U.S. allies and could deal another blow to relations with Moscow. Slowing the process offers a smarter way to manage the issue.

The Bush administration came to office determined to make things happen on missile defense. It did, quickly withdrawing from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and deploying a handful of missile interceptors in Alaska and California to counter North Korea. It then announced plans to place a missile defense radar in the Czech Republic plus interceptors in Poland to protect against an anticipated Iranian missile threat.

While the Czechs have agreed to host the radar, talks with the Poles have bogged down, and Washington reportedly has explored basing the interceptors in Lithuania. Warsaw wants some expensive help in upgrading air defenses. The Poles are dragging their feet in part because they do not know what the next U.S. administration will do. They understandably do not want to be left holding the bag – having created a domestic political row and a new irritant in their relations with Moscow – if the new administration slows or cancels the program.

The next administration will have reasons to reexamine the wisdom of the missile defense plans.

First, the effectiveness of the proposed system has yet to be fully proven.

Second, missile defense is expensive, and the Pentagon, engaged in conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, already makes a huge claim on federal budget dollars.

Third, the threat of an Iranian missile capable of reaching America or all of Europe does not appear imminent. President Bush said last October that, with foreign assistance, the Iranians could have such a missile before 2015. But some analysts doubt that. After all, this is rocket science.

Fourth, missile defense poses one of the major problem issues on the troubled U.S.-Russian agenda. The Russians challenge the American rationale for deploying missile defense in Europe since no Iranian missile can now threaten Europe, to say nothing of reaching America. Moreover, many in Moscow simply do not believe the United States would spend so much on a missile defense not oriented against Russia.

Washington should instead slow the deployment program and link construction of the interceptor and radar sites in Europe, estimated by the Defense Department to take two years, to the anticipated deployment of an Iranian missile capable of reaching America or all of Europe. If the U.S. intelligence community projects the Iranians will deploy such a missile in 2013, Washington can offer to Moscow not to begin construction earlier than late 2010 or 2011. The timetable could be slipped if evidence emerges that the Iranian program has been delayed, or aborted with compelling information that the program has been cancelled.

This approach would let the Pentagon defer some missile defense expenditures to later years and possibly avoid them altogether. It would permit a spell for further testing and development of the proposed interceptor. It would allow time to talk to potential basing countries without a rushed effort to play one off against another. And it could pick up on the acknowledgment of a possible future Iranian threat implicit in Moscow’s 2007 offer of use of a Russian-operated early warning radar in Azerbaijan.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, this approach would give Russian diplomacy the opportunity – and a strong incentive – to avert U.S. missile defense deployment by addressing its cause in Iran. The Russians have influence in Tehran, certainly more than we do. Let’s get Moscow to apply it by telling them: if you can delay or prevent the threat, we will not deploy our missile defense. The link would also create incentives for Russian steps to forestall Iranian efforts to enrich uranium, as the missile defense requirement is driven by fear of the combination of a long-range missile and a nuclear warhead.

This approach would generate new pressures against the Iranian missile program. While perhaps a long-shot, it could work. At the least, it would defuse this question with Moscow by demonstrating responsiveness to Russian concerns and making clear that missile defense is aimed against an Iranian threat, not Russia. That would help the broader U.S.-Russian agenda.

We have some time to cope with Iran’s potential missile threat. We should use it.