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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 51, October 2000

Gore-Chernomyrdin Agreements over Iran in Spotlight

On October 13, The New York Times reported that Vice President Gore had reached an agreement with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1995 to allow Moscow to proceed with already-contracted arms sales to Iran in return for a cessation of all transfers by December 31, 1999. The story alleged that the agreement - in the form of an aide memoire dated June 30, 1995 - was at variance with 1992 US legislation, The Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act, mandating the imposition of sanctions for "destabilising" arms sales to either Baghdad or Tehran. In addition, a 1996 amendment to the 1962 Foreign Assistance Act likewise requires sanctions to be imposed on countries supplying arms to states considered by the US to be sponsoring terrorism, into which category Iran falls.

Responding to the article, four senior Republican Senators - Majority Leader Trent Lott, Foreign Relations Committee Chair Jesse Helms, Sam Brownback and Gordon Smith - wrote to President Clinton (October 13) stating: "Please assure us...[that] the Vice President did not, in effect, sign a pledge with Viktor Chernomyrdin in 1995 that committed your Administration to break US law by dodging sanctions requirements." In a separate statement, issued the same day, Senator Smith railed: "the Russians have almost single-handedly armed the government of Iran with everything from combat aircraft and diesel submarines to nuclear-weapons related technology. The Vice President owes the Congress and the American people an explanation for his actions, and an indication of how he intends to rectify the damage that has been done to US security." Ari Fleischer, a spokesperson for Governor Bush, described the 1995 deal as "destabilising" and detrimental to American and Middle Eastern security. However, White House spokesperson Jake Siewart denied any cover-up, stating (October 13) that the 1995 deal had not been hidden from lawmakers: "The agreement was made public at the time, and Congress was given the opportunity to know more about it five years ago. So if they want to know more about it now, they should look to themselves." Siewart added that the arms transfers concerned were of "antiquated" weaponry. And Jim Kennedy, a spokesperson for the Vice President, dismissed the story as scare mongering, arguing: "America and our friends and allies in the Middle East are more secure today because of this agreement than if it had never been entered into... [The aide memoire] in no way violates or circumvents US law."

On October 17, The Washington Times reported that Gore had agreed with a request from Chernomyrdin in late 1995 not to inform Congress of details of Moscow' nuclear cooperation with Tehran. According to a letter obtained by the newspaper, Chernomyrdin requested that the cooperation, which he described as limited to technical training and the delivery of nuclear fuel to a reactor facility at Bushehr, should not be made public to "third parties, including the US Congress."

The Times article also quoted a January 13, 2000 letter from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov noting that, indeed, without the 1995 "aide memoire, Russia' conventional arms sales to Iran would have been subject to sanctions based on various provisions of our law." This blunt assertion is seemingly in contradiction to assurances given by other Administration officials, including National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, that Russian arms sales did not breach US law.

In her letter, Albright notes with regret "Russia' unilateral decision to continue delivering arms to Iran beyond the December 31, 1999 deadline", and urges Russia "to refrain from any further deliveries of those arms covered by the aide memoire," and additionally to "provide specific information on what has been delivered, what remains to be shipped and anticipated timing" and "refrain from concluding any additional arms contracts with Iran." Failing to take such measures will, Albright warns, "unnecessarily complicate our relationship."

According to Jim Kennedy, quoted in the October 17 Times article: "It' obvious that the motivation for this leak is political." The Vice President' contacts with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin over the Iran issue, in 1995 and subsequently, can be uncontroversially interpreted, Mr. Kennedy argued, as "simply...part of the overall United States effort to encourage the Russians to break off or limit their nuclear relationship with Iran."

The weeks leading up to the breaking of the story saw a flurry of Congressional testimony setting out the Administration' ongoing concerns about Iran' alleged proliferation intentions and programmes. In a statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on October 5, Robert Einhorn, Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation, dealt in detail with the US view of the Bushehr reactor project: "Russia remains the one significant exception to this virtual embargo on nuclear cooperation with Iran. The most visible nuclear cooperation...is Russia' construction of a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power reactor at Bushehr... We have opposed this project, not because we believe such a light-water reactor under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards itself poses a threat, but because of our concern that the Bushehr project would be used by Iran as a cover for maintaining wide-ranging contacts with Russian nuclear entities and for engaging in more sensitive forms of cooperation with more direct applicability to a nuclear weapons programme." Addressing the issue more generally, Einhorn remarked:

"Assistance by Russian entities to Iran' missile and nuclear programmes has been a persistent problem in US-Russian relations for over half a decade. Both the President and Vice President, as well as the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, and numerous other senior Administration officials, have engaged on this issue on an almost continuous basis. ... The Vice President, in particular, using the institutional machinery afforded by the Bi-national Commission, has played a central role in pursuing such non-proliferation goals as fissile material security, the purchase of high enriched uranium, disposition of plutonium, and the destruction of chemical weapons - all of which are crucial to denying Iran and other states of concern access to these WMD-related materials."

On September 21, Iran announced that it had conducted a test firing of the Shahab-3D ballistic missile, which the government insists is being developed not for military use but as a satellite launch vehicle. US officials, describing the system simply as a weapon, cast doubt on the test' success.

Also on September 21, Russia announced it was suspending, pending a review, a deal to supply Iran with laser technology. According to Yuri Despalko, chief press spokesperson for the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry: "We think that the equipment meant for Iran does not fall under the limits of the international exports regime... Nevertheless, the topic is sensitive, especially for the United States, and a decision has been made to give the issue more consideration."

Reports: Russia freezes laser deal with Iran, Associated Press, September 21; Iran tests new version of Shahab-3 missile, Reuters, September 21; Iran test fires missile, Associated Press, September 21; Text - US non-proliferation chief sees positive steps taken by Russia, US State Department (Washington File), October 5; Text - Iran is still seeking WMD capabilities, US State Department (Washington File), October 5; Republicans hit Gore on Russia arms to Iran, Reuters, October 13; Clinton questioned on Russian arms, Associated Press, October 14; Report - Gore kept Russian deal secret, Associated Press, October 17; Letter shows Gore made deal, Washington Times, October 17.

© 2000 The Acronym Institute.