Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 182

Despite Moscow’s recent enlistment in the U.S. antiterror coalition and a more general improvement in ties between Russia and the United States since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the Russian government did not hesitate to defy American wishes this week when it signed a long-negotiated military-technical cooperation agreement with Iran. The framework accord was inked on Tuesday at the start of a four-day visit to Russia by Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani. Reports out of Moscow said that the agreement could pave the way for arms sales by Russia to Iran worth some US$300 million annually over the next five years. Although specific arms deals have yet to be negotiated, this week’s framework agreement does appear to end formally an earlier Russian commitment–one reached informally in 1995 by then U.S. Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Chernomyrdin–restraining Russian arms deliveries to Tehran. The Kremlin announced officially last November that it intended to terminate the 1995 agreement, and negotiations between Russia and Iran have been ongoing since that time. The key events in this negotiation process were then Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeev’s visit to Tehran last December, and Iranian President Mohammad Khatami’s groundbreaking visit to Moscow this past March. It was during Khatami’s talks in the Russian capital that the outlines of this week’s agreement were settled.

According to one Russian news source, Moscow and Tehran will now proceed to establish an intergovernmental Russian-Iranian commission on cooperation, under which aegis the actual package of Russian arms sales to Iran will be negotiated. New reports have differed slightly in their descriptions of the military hardware actually sought by Tehran, but most have mentioned longer-range S-300 air defense systems (comparable to the American Patriot system), medium-range Buk M1 and Tor M1 air defense missiles and Su-27 fighter jets. Some sources have also pointed to Yakhont antiship missiles, Iskander-E tactical ground-to-ground missiles and–in a deal said to be near finalization–BMP-3 armored infantry vehicles. In addition, reports said this week that Iran is also interested in purchasing what were described as Russian-made border-protection systems, which would be placed along Tehran’s 800-kilometer border with Afghanistan. The Iranian government will initially purchase two special sets of the stationary border protection equipment–to be deployed along a stretch of the border some 40 kilometers long–before making the decision on whether to purchase systems adequate to cover the entire border.

Some news sources this week, meanwhile, estimated the possible total value of the arms package Moscow and Tehran are considering at as much as US$7 billion. That figure appears to have been bandied about first by the Iranian ambassador to Moscow this spring, however, and may be something of an exaggeration. Other sources have put the total value of the proposed deals at closer to US$1.5 billion, while still others have said that Moscow hopes to sell Iran US$4 billion worth of arms as part of a US$10 billion Iranian rearmament program. Whatever total is finally reached, the Iranian-Russian arms deals seem sure to be a boon for Russia’s cash-starved (but politically influential) defense industrial sector. They seem likely also to move Iran into third place on the list of major purchasers of Russian military hardware, after China and India.

Reports out of Moscow this week made it clear that Shamkhani’s visit had also produced talks on another issue that has long been a source of tensions between Russia and the United States: Iranian-Russian nuclear cooperation. Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry told reporters on October 2 that in November of this year Russia will deliver the reactor for the first block at the controversial Bushehr nuclear power plant in Iran. Construction of the block should be completed in 2003, the ministry said, though it admitted that it would take some additional time to make the block fully operational. Meanwhile, talks between the Atomic Energy Ministry and the Iranian government on the possible construction of additional blocks at the Bushehr plant could also take place before the end of this year, a ministry spokesman said this week. Washington has repeatedly denounced Russia’s construction of the Bushehr plant, arguing that it is aiding Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear bomb. Moscow has bluntly rejected the U.S. objections, and its eagerness to build still more reactors for the Bushehr facility can only introduce additional strains in relations between Russia and the United States–and, indeed, between Russia and Israel as well.

Not surprisingly, the American-led antiterrorism campaign also featured prominently on the discussion agenda during Shamkhani’s talks on Tuesday with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov. And the message here was probably also not entirely to Washington’s liking. Ivanov portrayed Russia and Iran–by dint of their support for the Northern Alliance, which has been battling the Taliban government in Afghanistan–as long-time leaders in the international battle against terrorism. “Russia and Iran have long been conducting a struggle–not in words but in deeds–with this horrendous evil, including the associated illicit drug trafficking and trade in narcotics,” Ivanov was quoted as saying. He also said that he and Shamkhani had signed an agreement under which cooperation between the defense ministries would be increased so as to increase their capabilities in supporting the Northern Alliance, and both opposing terrorism and blocking drug shipments from Afghanistan. While the Bush administration may not be averse to cooperation between Russia and Iran in support of the Northern Alliance over the short term, a broader effort by Moscow and Tehran to portray themselves as a front-line of sorts against “actions by international terrorists” would seem to fly in the face of Washington’s continued classification of Iran itself as a state sponsoring terrorism. It also reflects Moscow’s subtle efforts to make the U.S.-led antiterror coalition serve its own perceived national needs.

That Washington was not pleased by this week’s developments was signaled yesterday by Aleksander Vershbow, the recently installed U.S. ambassador to Russia. Vershbow spoke of Washington’s discomfort with the new Russian-Iranian military-technical cooperation agreement, and made reference to evidence linking the Iranian government to terrorist organizations in the Middle East. But in an apparent reflection of the Bush administration’s new posture of downplaying differences with Moscow so as to ensure its participation (still relatively limited) in the antiterrorism coalition, Vershbow spoke only of Washington’s need “to hear from our Russian friends” what exactly the new military-technical cooperation agreement entails. Kremlin spokesman Sergei Yastrzhembsky, meanwhile, appeared to discount the U.S. concerns. He was quoted as saying on Tuesday that there is no specific evidence of Iran’s involvement in terrorist activities. “Iran is a partner of Russia and, naturally, we are not going to act against our own interests,” he told reporters. His remarks, and those of other top Russian officials this week, suggested that long-standing differences between Washington and Moscow, such as those related to Russian-Iranian defense and nuclear cooperation, are not going to go away simply because of closer Russian-American ties in the wake of the tragic September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States (Interfax, Radio Mayak, Itar-Tass, October 2; Washington Post, New York Times, DPA, AFP, Vremya MN, October 3).