The first hint that a strategic deal was brewing was dropped by Russian President Vladimir Putin. At a news conference in Tehran last week, he alluded to a shift in the controversy with Washington which might settle his dispute with President George W. Bush on the US missile shield in East Europe.

His comment went largely unnoticed - except by officials in Tehran, who noted his reference to a possible understanding with the Americans - though not with Iran.

Then, on Monday, Oct. 22, Bush and Putin talked at length on the phone and made further progress towards an understanding.

The outline of the American role in the deal surfaced in Prague Tuesday, Oct. 23, when US secretary of defense Robert Gates suggested a possible delay in activating the proposed US missile interceptor project in Poland and radar station in the Czech Republic - until an Iranian threat was “definitely proved.”

Gates articulated this concession for allaying Moscow’s strong opposition after he held talks with Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek. Gates added that the US would proceed with plans to build the sites, but possibly wait before putting them in working order.

“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.

The proposal has already been presented to the Russians who have expressed interest. Gates described a related proposal that might mean permitting a Russian presence at US missile defense bases, including at the Polish and Czech sites.

US president George Bush spoke a short while later at the National Defense University in Washington. He said the US-led missile defense system in Europe is urgent, but spoke positively about Putin’s offer of missile defense facilities in Azerbaijan and southern Russia. The entire project, said the US president, is “part of a broader effort to move beyond the Cold War” that could lead to “an unprecedented level of strategic cooperation” between Russia and the United States.” He referred to Iran as “an emerging threat that affects us all.”

The Pentagon wants to install 10 interceptor rockets in Poland, linked to tracking radar in the Czech Republic and to other elements of the missile defense system based in the United States.

Bush’s words and the plan outlined by Gates represent a major US concession to Russia and a triumph for Putin’s dogged opposition to the deployment of US missile defense bases in two former Warsaw Treaty nations. The Bush administration can also congratulate itself on bringing the Russian leader round to admitting that Iranian missiles are a threat to Europe; its corollary - the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program is a threat to the world.

As long as the deal is not wrapped up between the two world Leaders, Washington and Moscow sources say these key questions remain open:

How far will Putin go in his support for an American clampdown on Iran? Will tough sanctions by the UN Security Council and the world community be his limit? And what if Iran continues to defiantly press ahead with its nuclear weapons program in the face of a military showdown with the United States? Will Russia then look away?

The Bush-Putin deal is still in the making. Some answers may be forthcoming in the weeks ahead.