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PRAGUE (Reuters) - The United States has proposed delaying the activation of parts of its European missile defence shield if Russia cooperates on the project, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Tuesday.
The U.S. plans to place interceptor missiles in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic as part of a system Washington says is needed to counter possible attacks from "rogue states" including Iran and North Korea.
Russia argues the system would be a threat to its security.
Gates said the possible delay was one of the proposals he and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice put forward in talks with Russian officials to try to ease Moscow's concern and win its cooperation over the defence system.
"We continue to encourage the Russians to partner with us in missile defence and continue our efforts to reassure them that these facilities are not aimed at Russia and could benefit Russia," he said.
Gates said activation of the missile shield could depend on "definitive proof" of a threat.
"We would consider tying together the 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.
"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 we would delay activating them until there was concrete proof of the threat from Iran," he told reporters in Prague.
The Americans also offered to allow the Russians to maintain a presence at the Czech site, to promote transparency. Gates, after meeting with Czech officials, said such an agreement would not be completed without Prague's approval.
"Nothing will be done without consent of the Czech government," he said.
Under Washington's best-case scenario, the European shield would be fully operational in 2013. The Bush administration will be long over by then, leaving to the next president the responsibility to fulfil such promises.
President Vladimir Putin said the United States should use a Russian-operated early warning radar in Azerbaijan instead.
U.S. officials view that as a potential addition to their plan, not a substitute.
Washington's negotiations are ongoing with both the Czech Republic and Poland. Talks with Poland may be delayed after last weekend's election brought to power a party that has promised tougher negotiations over the U.S. plans.
The Czech agreement might not be finalised and approved by parliament for another six months, said Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Tomas Pojar.
"We are talking with Russians. We are very open with Russians," Pojar said. "But they should not have veto over our security and over NATO's security issues and decisions."
U.S. and European officials familiar with the proposals said Moscow and Washington needed to overcome differences on the imminence of the threat from Iran or other states.
"The difference is over timelines, how soon the ballistic missiles with a range that could reach the United States or greater parts of Europe can be achieved," a senior U.S. government official told Reuters.
Russia believes Iran is 15 to 20 years away from having missiles capable of hitting western Europe or the United States, according to U.S. officials. Washington thinks the threat will come sooner.
"The need for missile defence in Europe is real and I believe it's urgent," President George W. Bush said in a policy speech in Washington.
Gates is due to see his Russian counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov at a meeting of NATO defence ministers on the Dutch coast on Wednesday and Thursday. Russia is routinely invited to such talks to try to further NATO-Russia cooperation.
Additional reporting by Caren Bohan in Washington