Publication: Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 97

With Russia and the United States having reached high-profile agreements on a strategic arms cut plan and a new Russia-NATO cooperation council, the two countries are expected to turn their attentions now to narrowing differences over Moscow’s continuing nuclear and military cooperation with Iran. The issue is expected to figure prominently in next week’s summit meeting in Moscow and St. Petersburg between Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin, and could afterward go some way toward determining just how close relations between the two countries are ultimately to become. Bush administration officials have indicated in recent days that they intend to step up the pressure on Moscow to curtail transfers of key technologies to Iran, and Washington will reportedly seek in this same context to finalize an agreement with Moscow under which the two countries will participate jointly in a campaign against proliferation.

Russian-Iranian defense and nuclear ties have been a major point of friction between Russia and the United States since the mid-1990s. At issue are allegations leveled by the government of the United States (and that of Israel) that various Russian research institutes and other entities have been guilty of leaking sensitive military technologies to Iran and have thereby helped further efforts by Iran to develop longer-range ballistic missiles. Russia and the United States have also battled over the nuclear power plant that Russia is building for Iran in the southern Gulf port of Bushehr. While Russian officials have maintained that the plant will be under full international control, Washington has argued that it is unavoidably providing expertise and technology for Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon. A former Clinton administration official made precisely this point when he was quoted earlier this week as saying: “All the contacts between the Iranian and Russian nuclear establishments, plus all the money that’s flowing from Iran to Russia for the project, gives the Iranians access and allows them to acquire from Russia more sensitive nuclear technology.”

In an effort to counter U.S. criticism on this score, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Aleksandr Rumyantsev spent three days in Washington last week in intensive talks with U.S. officials. Rumyantsev, who is an aggressive promoter of Russian nuclear technology exports, claimed afterward to have had some success in easing U.S. concerns. But his U.S. counterpart, Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, went only so far as to say that the two sides had had “positive discussions.” The two sides did, however, announce that they had agreed to create a joint U.S.-Russia task force that will examine ways to safeguard low-grade radioactive materials that might be used to fashion a so-called “dirty bomb.”

Agreement on a plan limiting Iranian-Russian nuclear and military cooperation will likely be harder to come by, however. According to reports earlier this week, the U.S. administration will seek during the upcoming summit meeting to persuade the Kremlin that the potential benefits of cracking down on this sort of assistance far outweigh any advantages Moscow might get from dealing with Iran. The U.S. side will presumably offer Russia the prospect of increased American aid and business if it limits defense and nuclear exchanges with Tehran.

But the Bushehr project–said to be worth about US$800 million–is a lucrative one for Russia’s cash-strapped nuclear energy sector, and Moscow and Tehran have reportedly been negotiating possible follow-on projects in the nuclear field. Russia will likewise be reluctant to give up entirely its military-technical cooperation with Iran. Although estimates of total Russian arms sales to Iran have varied, commentators in Moscow have suggested that Tehran could soon move into third place among the world’s major purchasers of Russian military hardware–behind China and India–on the strength of purchases that could ultimately climb into the billions of dollars. A recent U.S. Congressional report said that Russia had delivered some US$800 million in military hardware to Iran from 1997-2000 (New York Times, The Guardian, August 21, 2001).

Russia’s hard line on its dealings with Iran was reiterated during a recent visit to the United States by Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov. In an address delivered at Stanford University earlier this month, he maintained that Moscow was unaware of any Iranian efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction and said that the United States had thus far produced no hard evidence to the contrary. An unnamed senior Bush administration official, meanwhile, was quoted this week as saying that Washington has quietly dropped its insistence that Russia pull out of the Bushehr project and is instead demanding only that Moscow avoid any additional nuclear cooperation with Iran. If that is true, then Washington may be considering a similar compromise on the issue of Russian-Iranian military-technical cooperation. The compromise might permit Russia to sell to Iran conventional weaponry not deemed to upset the military balance in the region, while simultaneously demanding of Moscow a halt to any and all leaks of more sensitive missile technologies (AP, May 6, 9, 14;, May 6; Reuters, May 9; New York Times, May 15).