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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 53, December 2000 - January 2001

Russia Holds Firm on Arms to Iran

On November 22, the Washington Times reported a Russian decision to continue selling battlefield weapons to Iran, in apparent contravention of a confidential pledge given by Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to Vice President Gore in 1995 that such sales would cease by the end of 2000 (see Disarmament Diplomacy No. 51 & Disarmament Diplomacy No. 52 for background and details). The Clinton administration, which had been informed of the move a few days before the presidential election, has reacted with consternation. According to an unnamed official, quoted on November 22: "There are ongoing discussions with the Russians, including at the highest levels, making it clear to them that if they do this there are going to be consequences. The consequences could be sanctions..."

Russian officials sought to play down the issue, insisting they were not contemplating any transfers harmful from a non-proliferation perspective, and warning Washington to temper its rhetoric and act judiciously. In the words of Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov (November 23): "Russia bases its acts on close adherence to its international commitments [and this is] also [so] in the case of Iran. We will continue to do so... If someone creates his own lists, it is a question of the competence of that state. ... We will fulfil all international requirements on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction." Ivanov added vehemently: "You cannot speak to Russia in the language of ultimatums... The language of sanctions is not the kind of language you can use with Russia."

According to Konstantin Kosachev, Deputy Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Duma (November 23): "Observing this [1995] agreement no longer serves our interests and any attempt to impose sanctions would be groundless under international law." Kosachev added that the 1995 arrangement was effectively forced on a Yeltsin government too weak to resist: "We remember how difficult times were in 1995. We remember how Russia was interested in the support of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and developing normal relations with the United States... This is why the agreement was bondage for Russia... It was forced, but at that stage it corresponded to Russian interests."

The Gore-Chernomyrdin accord has been strongly criticised by Congressional Republicans for allowing Russia too much leeway in selling arms to Iran during the 1995-2000 period. One of the administration's harshest critics in this regard, Chair of the House International Relations Committee Benjamin Gilman, complained on November 23: "It is now obvious why the administration was so evasive with regard to its secret arrangement with Russia... Such a misguided policy of acquiescence to Russian arms transfers to Iran has not been able to withstand public scrutiny and has now collapsed of its own weight."

US and Russian officials discussed the issue in Moscow on December 6-7. In the terse summation of a December 8 Russian Foreign Ministry statement, the "experts met...in accordance with an arrangement made by Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Igor Ivanov and US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to discuss mutual concerns related to [the] international arms trade, including with Iran. At the request of the American experts, they were informed of new elements in the Russian system of arms exports in light of the Russian Federation President's Decree of December 1, 2000."

In Tehran on December 28, Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev held discussions with his counterpart Ali Shamkhani. According to Shamkhani: "The two countries have made concrete decisions to expand and deepen all kinds of military, security and defence relations in the long term... The presence of NATO and Israel in the region, especially with NATO's coming close to Iran's border [with Turkey], is considered a threat..." Commenting on the talks, State Department spokesperson Philip Reeker argued (December 28): "We are particularly disturbed by Russian press accounts that we've seen today...which suggest that Russia is ready to sell Iran missiles, submarines and other equipment... It's not sufficient for Russia to simply call this kind of equipment, quote, 'defensive'... Some of the equipment...would pose a serious threat...[and] clearly place the national security interests of the United States, its allies and friends in the region at risk..."

On January 9, Ambassador Stephen Sestanovich, Special Advisor to Secretary of State Albright on the former Soviet Union, summed up the attitude of the outgoing administration:

"If closer Russian relations with Iran make it easier for Iran to develop weapons of mass destruction or ballistic missile capabilities, or to acquire military capabilities that are destabilising in the region, or make it easier for Iran to support international terrorist groups, or strengthen Iran in its opposition to the Middle east peace process, we consider that very negative, and I think that we are not alone in having those concerns..."

On January 16, Russian Minister of Atomic Energy Yevgeny Adamov expressed frustration at claims that Moscow's commitment to build two nuclear power plants at the Bushehr site in Iran was evidence of a lax attitude with regard to non-proliferation: "There is not a single piece of evidence that we are helping or might help Iran develop nuclear weapons potential. It's all pure politics... If we follow that logic, we may as we'll ban education in Iran on the grounds that the knowledge of integral equations could help someone make calculations for nuclear weapons..."

Reports: Russia drops pledge not to arm Iran, Associated Press, November 22; Russia to scrap Iran arms pact with Gore, Reuters, November 22; From Russia with Chutzpah, by Jim Hoagland, Washington Post, November 22; Russia risks US sanctions on arms sales to Iran, Washington Post, November 23; Russia will limit hardware to Iran, Associated Press, November 23; Russia's Ivanov shrugs off US threat over Iran, Reuters, November 23; Russia dismisses threat of sanctions, Washington Post, November 24; Russia-Iran arms trade - no new deal, Associated Press, November 25; US, Russian Foreign Ministry Statement, Document 1427-8-12-2000, December 8; Russia, Iran say talks fruitful, Associated Press, December 28; US watches Russian, Iran armament, Associated Press, December 28; US worried about Russian plans to sell arms to Iran, Reuters, December 28; Excerpts - Sestanovich briefing on US relations with Russia, NIS, US State Department (Washington File), January 10; Russia expands nuke project in Iran, Associated Press, January 16.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.