Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 99

The transfer of Russian missile technology to Iran is back in the news as the U.S. Senate prepares this week to vote on a bill that would impose sanctions on foreign companies or organizations found to be helping Iran develop ballistic missiles. The legislation, clearly aimed at Russia, is expected to pass easily. The bill requires the president to report to Congress on every foreign firm, individual, business, group or government agency that has helped Iran develop missiles since August of 1995. Among other things, the bill would ban U.S. economic aid for a period of two years. The United States and Israel have repeatedly accused Russia of aiding–officially or unofficially–Iran’s efforts to develop ballistic missiles, and the issue has been a frequent topic of negotiations between the two sides.

Against a background of overwhelming support for the bill in the Senate, the Clinton administration went into action this week in an effort to block the legislation. On May 20, Stephen Sestanovich, the president’s special adviser on the former Soviet Union, told the Foreign Relations subcommittee on Europe that sanctions would be “profoundly counterproductive to U.S. national interest with respect to Russia.” Sestanovich, who acknowledged that Russia has not yet managed to stop the leakage of missile technology to Iran, nevertheless warned that the imposition of sanctions could have effects opposite from those intended. Sanctions, he said, “risk inadvertently undermining our efforts to stop Russia’s support of Iran’s missile programs.”

A similar message was reportedly conveyed by President Clinton himself during a White House meeting on the evening of May 20 with about a dozen senators. What the administration is arguing, in essence, is that Russia be given sufficient time to put an effective anti-proliferation in program in place. In that vein, Sestanovich pointed approvingly to Russia’s recently installed government, which he described as “modern [and] progressive.” He argued that its “top echelon … represents something we have never seen before in any Russian government.” (Reuter, AP, May 21)

In opposing the sanctions legislation, the Clinton administration has also pointed to a series of steps taken this month by President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian government aimed at improving oversight of Russian military and dual-use technology exports. In addition, Yeltsin reportedly assured Clinton in the strongest terms during their recent meeting in Birmingham that the Kremlin has committed itself fully to stopping missile technology transfers to Iran. (See Monitor May 19)

In Moscow, meanwhile, Kremlin spokesman and foreign policy adviser Sergei Yastrzhembsky yesterday warned the United States against trying to pressure Moscow with the threat of sanctions. He also repeated the Kremlin’s standard response that the proliferation of missile technologies to Iran is against Russia’s own national interest and that Moscow is acting effectively to deal with the problem. (Itar-Tass, May 21)