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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 55, March 2001

Russia Confirms Arms Sales, Nuclear Assistance for Iran

In Moscow on March 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared Russia's commitment to proceeding with sales of military equipment to Iran and assisting Iran's peaceful nuclear programme. Speaking after a meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami at the Kremlin, Putin told reporters that, for both political and economic reasons, his government was "interested in [military] cooperation" with Tehran. According to Putin, the "political reasons are that we believe that Iran must be an independent state capable of defending its national interests." Anticipating strong criticism from the United States, which routinely accuses Iran of seeking to acquire weapons of mass destruction, the Russian President insisted: "Iran does not make any claims on weapons lying outside international norms or Russian obligations in this sphere, and the Russian Federation does not intend to violate its international obligations."

Regarding Iran's long-uncompleted nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Putin stated on March 12 that the "Russian Federation is interested in and ready to take part in...such work." After discussions with Khatami in Kazan on March 15, a Russian nuclear industry official told reporters that Iran was planning to build two reactors at Bushehr. According to Yevgeny Sergeyev, General Director of the Izhorskiye Zavody nuclear plant in St. Petersburg: "In principle, he [President Khatami] confirmed that as soon as the equipment for the first reactor leaves the factory, a contract for the second reactor will be signed..."

The US State Department immediately voiced its unhappiness at the announcements in Moscow, particularly with regard to the arms sales. In the words of spokesperson Richard Boucher (March 12): "It's up to the Russians and the Iranians to specify in more detail what they may or may not be doing. But this is an issue of great concern to us, and particularly to this administration... We would be looking particularly closely at anything that was [concerned with] advanced conventional weapons or sensitive technologies. We think it's particularly counterproductive for the Russians to sell things in their neighbourhood in areas that...might threaten us all..." On March 14, after meeting with US Secretary Of State Colin Powell in Washington, Sergei Ivanov, the chief of the Presidential Security Council, told reporters: "It's all defensive - personnel carriers, tanks, anti-aircraft missiles - which are very legitimate and which are not offensive in nature..." Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee on March 14, Powell stated: "It is not wise to invest in regimes that do not follow international standards of behaviour... [W]e have to be candid with the Russians...[and tell they should not be] investing in weapons sales in countries such as Iran which have no future."

In 1995, US Vice-President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin came to a confidential agreement under which Russia pledged not to enter into any new arms contracts with Iran, and not to make any arms transfers to Iran after December 31, 2000 - see Disarmament Diplomacy, No. 51, No. 52 and No. 53. Late last year, Russia announced it considered itself no longer bound by the understanding, harshly criticised by Congressional Republicans for effectively condoning transfers to Iran from 1995-2000. The Ivanov-Powell discussions in Washington focussed in part on the question of replacing the US-Russia Commission on Economic and Technological Cooperation, established by Gore and Chernomyrdin and intended to meet regularly under the joint chairpersonship of the US Vice President and Russian Prime Minister. Returning to Moscow on March 15, Ivanov told a press briefing: "We had a good understanding on maintaining everything we achieved which was good under the previous administration, and on creating new mechanisms. ... At the same time, it is clear and logical that some sort of new mechanism will be created.... What form it will take and what level it will work at still has to be discussed."

Congressional anger at the announcement of Russian arms sales to Iran was strong and bipartisan. On March 15, Democrat Representative Joseph Hoeffel stated: "Iran is a terrorist state, and strengthening their military is a security threat to the United States and US allies such as Israel... What I would like to see Bush do is to tell them in no uncertain terms that the more than $1 billion in [US] aid [to Russia] is threatened by this, and [that] we are prepared to stop the assistance unless we can come to some understanding..."

By coincidence, on March 13 President Bush announced the latest, annual renewal of an Executive Order, introduced by President Clinton in 1995, declaring a national emergency with respect to the threat to US security by Iran. In the words of Bush's notice: "Because the actions and policies of the Government of Iran continue to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States, the national emergency...must continue in effect..."

Reports: Putin says Russia to sell defensive arms to Iran, Reuters, March 12; Iran, Russia ink oil, weapons pact, Associated Press, March 12; Iran, Russia defy US with pact, Associated Press, March 12; US warns Russia to restrict arms sales to Iran, Reuters, March 12; Text - on continuation of Iran emergency, US Stare Department (Washington File), March 13; Powell cautions Russia on Iran deal, Associated Press, March 14; US says taking 'realistic approach' to Russia, Reuters, March 14; Russia seeks new framework for US relations, Reuters, March 15; Iran to sign second reactor deal with Russia, Reuters, March 15; House wants Bush to weigh aid cutoff, Associated Press, March 15.

© 2001 The Acronym Institute.