Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 1

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s visit to Tehran last week may be an indicator of at least one test to future relations between Vladimir Putin’s Russia and George W. Bush’s incoming presidential administration. The visit was the first by a Russian defense chief since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution and appeared to signify President Putin’s increased willingness to defy the United States and to pursue cooperative relations with countries which Washington deems rogue states. Sergeev’s visit falls on the heels of Moscow’s well-publicized repudiation in November of an informal 1995 agreement–signed by U.S. Vice President Al Gore and then Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin–aimed at limiting Russian arms sales to Tehran. Indeed, many analysts see the fresh Russian move to embrace Iran as part of a broader strategy to rebuild old Soviet ties with various countries. These also include Iraq, Libya, Syria and Cuba.

In rhetorical and symbolic terms, Sergeev’s Tehran visit appeared to satisfy the immediate objectives of both the Russian and Iranian governments. Following talks on December 28 with his Iranian counterpart, Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Sergeev announced that in reestablishing military cooperation the two countries had “just opened a new chapter” in their relations. He said that Moscow and Tehran had agreed to “develop their military cooperation in all fields”–including the future training of Iranian officers in Russian military schools–and added that Russia and Iran would also work together in the area of politics, science and technology. A day earlier Iranian President Mohammad Khatami had also underscored these hopes of deepened military cooperation between the two countries when, during a meeting of his own with Sergeev, he praised Moscow’s renunciation of the 1995 Russian-U.S. agreement as a “sign of courage and Russian independence” (AFP, December 28-29).

Shamkhani, meanwhile, highlighted what was clearly a second priority area in Sergeev’s talks with Iranian leaders: their joint position on a few key regional issues. Shamkhani said that Iran and Russia now share a common security viewpoint thanks to NATO’s eastward expansion, the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan and increased Western influence in the Caucasus and Central Asia. An Iranian Foreign Ministry statement said that both countries had agreed to “long-term” political cooperation in Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Persian Gulf. Their common interest in bolstering the opposition in Afghanistan against the Taliban movement was reportedly also discussed (AFP, Reuters, December 28).

In practical terms, it remains difficult at this early date to assess the significance of Sergeev’s visit. Some sources suggested that the Tehran talks provided a new boost to Russian efforts to fashion a sort of four-power alliance of Russia, Iran, China and India “to oppose the expansion of the NATO alliance in Central Asia” (, December 29). A Russian daily, meanwhile, presented a different interpretation. It said that the talks in Tehran were intended primarily as a political message to Washington, and suggested that the Kremlin might be threatening to renew military ties with Iran as a response to the possibility that the United States might scrap the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty in order to deploy a national ballistic missile defense system (Segodnya, December 28).

That Moscow might be both moving with some caution and probing for a response from the incoming Bush administration, however, was suggested, first, by the care taken by the Russian side to underscore that discussion of specific arms deals was not on Sergeev’s agenda in Tehran and, second, by Sergeev’s efforts to downplay the impact of any possible Russian-Iranian arms dealings on the region. On the latter score, Sergeev repeated earlier assurances that Moscow would violate no international agreements by selling arms to Iran (a reference, presumably, to international nuclear nonproliferation agreements), that Russian-Iranian arms deals would not be directed at any third country and that Russia would sell only “defensive” weapons–and spare parts–to Tehran. A senior Defense Ministry official told reporters that “no missile-technology supplies are being considered during the visit… What is at stake is only the delivery of conventional weapons” (AP, Reuters, December 27).

Despite the assurances, the U.S. State Department expressed its concerns over Sergeev’s visit on December 28, saying that it was “particularly disturbed by Russian press accounts that we’ve seen today of… Sergeev’s discussions with the Iranians which suggest that Russia is ready to sell Iran missiles, submarines and other equipment.” A State Department spokesman also said that any such sales would “clearly place the national security interests of the United States, its allies and friends in the region at risk.” The U.S. government will reportedly seek clarifications regarding Russia’s intents in this area “sooner rather than later” (Reuters, December 28). Washington has over the past several years sanctioned a handful of Russian defense companies and institutes for their dealings with Iran, and has threatened more serious sanctions if it was found that Russian entities were continuing to provide nuclear or missile technologies to Iran. Many expect the incoming Bush administration to take a harder line on such issues than has the Clinton administration.

The U.S. threats and Sergeev’s sometimes muted statements notwithstanding, many in Moscow expect friendlier relations with Iran to provide a windfall for Russian arms dealers. They point both to the revenues that Tehran has earned as a result of higher world oil prices, and to Iranian plans to upgrade the country’s armed forces, and predict that Russia could earn as much as US$7-8 billion in arms sale revenues from Iran in the coming years.