Disarmament DiplomacyIssue No. 22, January 1998
News reviewUS, China, Russia and EU Search for Common Ground on Iran
The conviction of the Clinton Administration that Iran is intent on acquiring weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery led it in January to continue to press for stricter WMD-related export-control policies from both China and Russia. The issue has also periodically, and recently, plagued relations between the US and European Union (EU). January also saw a concerted attempt by the new holders of the EU Presidency, Britain, to avoid further confrontation and stress common-ground.
On 22 January, Russia announced it was introducing new controls - known as 'Norms of Comprehensive Control' - designed to assist the prevention of WMD-related exports. According to government spokesperson Igor Shabdurasulov (22 January), the move stemmed from a 17 January telephone conversation between Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and US Vice-President Al Gore, during which "it was decided...to work out such a document."
Regarding the substance of the new controls, Shabdurasulov elaborated: "The document orders Russian trading companies, both private and State, to refrain from exporting any goods or services with both civilian and military use which do not fall under Russian Federation regulations on export controls and also in cases where they know the given goods and services will be used to create or exploit nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or missiles which can deliver them." Speaking on 23 January, the Director of Russia's Space Agency, Yuri Koptev (see below), stated that the new norms would permit the authorities "To consider any issues that are not under effect [sic] of the international missile technology control [regime], but [which are] related to dual-purpose technologies."
Shabdurasulov refused to confirm that the measure was related to past or possible sales to Iran. However, following the apparently decisive 17 January phone call, Al Gore's spokesperson Jonathan Spalter issued a statement commenting that "[t]he two leaders paid particular attention to continuing efforts to stop the flow of technology to Iran's ballistic missile program and agreed that both governments will intensify efforts to prevent these transfers from occurring... Both governments agreed that this problem poses a threat to regional stability and to the national security interests of Russia and the United States."
On 23 January, State Department spokesperson James Rubin reacted positively to the news of the new controls: "This is certainly an encouraging step..." However, Rubin added:
"We're going to keep working on this. This is a problem that's not solved but it's a step forward... These are the kind of steps that we think would help the Russians implement their stated goals of preventing the threat to their own security and international security from weapons of mass destruction falling into the wrong hands."
A step in the wrong direction, as the US may see it, was taken the day before the new export-decree was issued. On 21 January, a Presidential decree passed control of all aspects of Russia's space industry - including possible exports of military- and military-related equipment - to the civilian Russian Space Agency (RKA), previously entrusted only with non-military aspects of the space programme. Officials made clear that the main motivation behind the move was to increase exports - according to senior official Andrei Kokoshin: "The struggle for a bigger share on the world market for space launches and the market for space services is just beginning. I am sure Russia can show great strength here." Although the markets referred to may be predominantly civilian, RKA Director Koptev quickly found himself issuing denials that the Agency's new remit might generate increased missile exports to 'rogue States,' particularly Iran. Speaking in Moscow on 23 January, Koptev said Russia had never handed over missiles or related technology to Iran, even though "there have been several cases when some Russian organizations, desperately struggling to make ends meet and lacking responsibility, have embarked on some ambiguous projects..."
In Washington on 30 January, Koptev gave more details of alleged past activity with regard to Iran. He said that the US had raised questions about 13 cases involving private Russian companies: 11 of these had been approved as appropriate, while two "could be interpreted as an attempt to transfer dual-purpose technology" and, after a secret service investigation, "were stopped before a real transfer took place."
Koptev added that it would be absurd for Russia to bolster any WMD- and missile-development programmes, "whether it's [in] Iran, Iraq or Syria" because "we firmly believe that the appearance of such weapons...will pose a direct threat to Russia..."
This point has been made repeatedly in recent months by Russian leaders and officials, for instance by Presidential spokesperson Sergei Yastrzhembsky, referring to the new export controls on 23 January: "Russia didn't, isn't and won't participate in Iran's missile program because this contradicts its national interests... We aren't our own enemies and don't want to create additional problems for ourself in the south." Yastrzhembsky went on to question the motivation of the US Congress in continually revisiting the issue. This tactic, he said, would "make one think that there are forces in Congress seeking to hurt Russian-US relations using the Iranian knot."
In Beijing on 18 January, the Defence Secretaries of China and the US - General Chi Haotian and William Cohen - signed a military cooperation agreement designed to increase transparency and openness in relations between the two States' naval forces. Cohen used his visit to seek further assurances from China that they did not intend to supply missiles or nuclear-related technology to Iran. Speaking after the signing ceremony, Cohen seemed content about the assurances he had received: "I am satisfied there will not be any continuation of sales that would contribute to insecurity to our troops in the region."
On 19 January, after meeting President Jiang Zemin, Cohen stated: "There will be no new sales, no transfers of technology, no technical cooperation that could give Iran an ability to upgrade current systems. ... It was a very clear message [from the President] that no sales should go forward - no transfers, period, to Iran. That would include those missiles that have been contracted to before... [This is] a pledge coming from the very highest official confirming and deepening the commitment that was made during his visit to Washington [in October 1997] we accept that he is the one who is leading his country."
Despite this ringing endorsement, some reports suggested that it was not clear exactly how the October Summit pledge - that China had no intention of selling any more missiles to Iran - had been deepened. Specifically, there were some suggestions that confirmation was still awaited on whether China had terminated the already-agreed sale of C-801 and C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran.
Cohen did refer to the cruise missiles Iran had already received from China, noting darkly:
"Should...disruption occur [in the Gulf region] through the use of weapon technology provided by China, it clearly would also have a damaging political impact on China's relations with many countries around the world, including the United States..."
Editor's note: on 28 January, delivering the annual security assessment of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Agency Director George Tenet noted of China's non-proliferation record: "There is no question that China has contributed to WMD advances in these countries," - a reference to both Iran and Pakistan. Tenet added: "The jury is still out on whether the recent changes [in export policy] are broad enough in scope and whether they will hold over the long-term. As such, Chinese activities in this area will require continued close watching..." See also the warmer comments of senior State Department official Robert Einhorn, in this issue's Documents and Sources.
In January, Britain assumed the Presidency of the EU. It quickly became clear that the UK is intent on easing US-EU tensions over the issue of Iran - relations strained to near-breaking in September 1997 when the US said it was considering imposing sanctions on the French company Total unless it pulled out of a gas-field contract with Iran (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 19). In a speech in Washington on 15 January, UK Foreign Secretary Robin Cook expressed confidence that EU Member States were determined to "do more to stop Iran from getting hold of the sort of materials that could help it build ballistic missiles, or that could be used to make chemical or biological weapons." Referring to Britain's role as EU President, Cook said: "We will use every tool and every agency at our disposal to obstruct Iran's unacceptable ambitions." However, Cook also made plain that the EU did not regard the imposition of sanctions with regard to non-military or military-related commercial activity as legitimate or sensible:
"We and our EU partners cannot forge a new partnership with the US on Iran while we are looking down the barrel of the Sanctions Act gun... We won't get very far if we work at cross-purposes and fight among ourselves."
The day after Cook's speech, State Department spokesperson James Rubin told reporters at the Foreign Press Center in Washington that "sanctions [against Total] are a live option," and that a determination would be made "soon."
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