Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 163

After a several-month period in which it largely disappeared from the diplomatic radar screen, the issue of alleged Russian leaks of defense and nuclear technologies to Iran reemerged suddenly with a vengeance this past week. The direct cause of this most recent focus was Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit to Moscow and the intensive talks he held with President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian government officials. Indeed, if some Western reports are to be believed, the problem of Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear cooperation may actually have topped Sharon’s agenda during his stay to Moscow, though most accounts of the visit highlighted instead its relevance to the worsening conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians and to international efforts aimed at stopping the bloodshed and restarting the peace process in the region.

The Iranian-Russian connection also reemerged as an issue on the Bush administration’s agenda yesterday when an unnamed senior U.S. official charged that Russian companies are continuing to help Iran develop nuclear, chemical and biological weapons–denials and reassurances from the Russian side notwithstanding. Aside from Sharon’s Moscow visit, there are several reasons why the Bush administration may have raised this long contentious issue yesterday. One is that a top Iranian defense official is expected to visit Moscow soon, at which time he will reportedly sign a framework agreement on prospective new Russian arms sales to Tehran. Washington is opposed to any such sales, and the Bush administration may be trying to signal to Moscow that expanding its defense relations with Tehran will come at a price. The issue of Russian defense and nuclear leaks to Tehran could also complicate already difficult talks between Washington and Moscow on missile defense, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and strategic offensive arms reductions. The two countries are in the middle of an intensified series of consultations on these subjects that Washington at least hopes will culminate in an agreement by the time Putin meets with President George W. Bush at his Texas ranch this November.

In a column published yesterday in the New York Times, William Safire referred to a telephone interview with Sharon to suggest that a primary reason for the controversial Israeli leader’s decision to make the hastily arranged visit to Moscow was his hope that he might convince Putin to halt continuing leaks of Russian nuclear technology to Iran. That the Iranian-Russian defense and nuclear connection was high on Sharon’s agenda was suggested by other reports as well. Indeed, the issue reportedly grew in urgency for the Israeli leadership when Russian Deputy Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Reshetnikov announced earlier this week–as Sharon was beginning his visit–that Moscow was proposing new plans to Iran for building additional nuclear power plant reactors. According to Reshetnikov, a team of Russian specialists will visit Iran soon to present a feasibility study for the assembly of more nuclear reactors in the southern port city of Bushehr. Russia’s construction of a 1,000-megawatt nuclear plant at the Bushehr site has long been a point of contention between Moscow and both the Israeli and American governments, and is the basis for many of the charges that the Russians are abetting Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

According to Israel’s Ha’aretz newspaper, Sharon used a meeting with Putin on Tuesday to raise the issue of Russian technological “leaks” to Iran, and to outline Israel’s fears that extreme regimes in Iran and Iraq would acquire nuclear weapons. To buttress his arguments, he brought with him Gideon Frank, director general of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission. Sharon was reportedly rebuffed by Russia, which repeated its now standard assurances that it is providing Iran with information pertaining only to conventional weapons and that none of it could be used to develop a nuclear arsenal. But the two sides nevertheless agreed that Frank and two other top Israeli officials would meet on Wednesday with a corresponding Russian team for professional talks on the matter. According to Ha’aretz, those talks also proved unproductive, however. Russia demanded proof as to how its civilian nuclear projects were being used by Iran for military purposes. But the Israelis have reportedly been hesitant to turn over such intelligence information due to fears that the Russians will use it to conceal their future nuclear dealings with Iran. The two sides also used their meeting on Wednesday to discuss Russia’s proposed new arms sales to Iran but it is unclear what came out those talks (New York Times, September 6; Reuters, September 4; Ha’aretz, September 4-6).

The Bush administration’s criticism yesterday of continuing Russian-Iranian defense ties was less substantive, but potentially more significant. It came in a briefing delivered to reporters by an unnamed senior U.S. official, who said that Russian companies are continuing to provide Iran with technology that might help Tehran to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, and that it is cooperation in the nuclear area that Washington finds especially threatening. “We think that the Russians need to confront this contradiction in their own policy,” the official was quoted as saying. “On the one hand they say that they are against proliferation, that they are not suicidal, but the continuing pattern of activity can’t be unknown to the Russian special services.” He added that the United States believes the Russian government is aware of this assistance to Iran, but he did not say whether the Russian government has approved it.

It is unclear whether the Bush administration is now prepared to take concrete action against Moscow as punishment for the continuing transfer of defense and nuclear technologies to Iran. The form of yesterday’s remarks–delivered anonymously by a U.S. official–suggest it is not. The substance conveyed much the same message. The official said that he did not think any new U.S. sanctions were under consideration, although he claimed the issue has “been a major subject of discussion at various levels,” including in talks between the Russian and U.S. presidents (Reuters, AP, September 5; AFP, September 6).

But the Bush administration’s overwhelming foreign policy priority in recent months with regard to Russia has been winning Moscow’s support for U.S. missile defense development plans, and that has led it place on the back burner such long-standing points of friction as Iranian-Russian defense cooperation and the Kremlin’s continuing bloody war in Chechnya. That strategy seems likely to continue. Amid some recent signals that the Kremlin is stiffening its resistance to U.S. missile defense plans, however, and that the November presidential summit may fail to produce a missile agreement, some in the Bush Administration may be considering an at least partial return to the more confrontational posture vis-a-vis Moscow that dominated U.S. policy earlier this year. And even if Washington is reluctant to go down that road at this time, it may for domestic political reasons feel compelled to react forcefully if a once-postponed visit to Moscow by Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani takes place in the near future, and if it produces the sort of major arms deals that some are predicting it will (see the Monitor, September 4).