Publication: Fortnight in Review Volume: 6 Issue: 23

The hints of upheaval in Russia’s domestic political scene appear not to have spilled over–at least not yet–into Moscow’s conduct of foreign policy. Indeed, Russian activities in this area have gone into overdrive in recent weeks and would seem, if anything, to reflect a new assertiveness emanating from Moscow. The increased Russian activity appears to be a result of two factors: a move by Putin and his closest advisors to put their imprint more fully on Russian diplomatic and security policy, and a concurrent effort by the Kremlin to take maximum advantage of the changing presidential administrations in Washington. Indeed, these factors are to some degree different sides of the same coin. Both involve an effort by Moscow to distance itself from some of the policy patterns and relationships that evolved over the Clinton-Yeltsin years.

An apparent Russian move to redefine relations with Washington was most clearly evidenced over the past fortnight by the announcement that Moscow had repudiated an informal 1995 agreement regulating Russia’s arms dealings with Iran. Not coincidentally, U.S. Vice President Al Gore and then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had negotiated the accord under the aegis of a joint commission that was perhaps the primary vehicle for Russian-U.S. interaction during the Clinton-Yeltsin years. The 1995 agreement had permitted Russia to fulfill earlier arms sales agreements between Moscow and Tehran, but prohibited Russia from negotiating any new arms deals with Iran. In return, the Clinton administration waived sanctions that might have been leveled against Moscow based on U.S. legislation aimed at isolating the Iranian government.

Russian officials and observers cited several reasons for the repudiation of the 1995 agreement by the Kremlin, but they appeared to be little more than pretexts for a move which essentially reflected long-standing calls in Russia to defy Washington and resume arms dealings with Iran. Those supporting this view have argued that Russia stands to gain more in export revenues from Iran than it does to lose as a result of any punitive U.S. sanctions. The Russian decision was also based on the equally long-held view that arms dealings with Iran violate no international norms and that the United States has no right to impose its views on sovereign nations like Russia. With all that in mind, and despite fresh warnings from the United States, Moscow made it clear that it intends soon to begin negotiating what it hopes will be arms sales to Iran worth several billion dollars. Russia’s defense minister will apparently travel to Iran sometime early next to start the ball rolling in these negotiations.