Publication: Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 204

During their meeting yesterday in Oslo, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak appeared to put the question of Russian military technology transfers to Iran back on the diplomatic front burner. The issue of illicit leaks of Russian missile and nuclear technology to Iran has long been a point of friction between Moscow and both the Israeli and U.S. governments. Israeli leaders have appeared to put the issue aside in recent months, however. By most accounts, that occurred initially during Israeli national election campaigning this past spring when then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sought warmer ties with Moscow in order to win Israel’s large Russian immigrant vote. Following the election of Barak, Israel apparently continued to downplay the importance of the Russian-Iran connection at the behest of the Clinton administration. It hoped to reach agreements with Moscow which would stop the flow of Russian technology to Iran while simultaneously heading off congressional pressure for new sanctions against Moscow.

Reports yesterday suggested that Barak has been convinced that the Russian leaks to Iran are continuing, and that he has decided to stiffen Israeli government policy in that area. It appeared that he got nowhere in his talks with Putin, however. The Russian prime minister repeated previous Russian assurances that Moscow–like Israel–has no interest in seeing Iran join the club of nuclear powers. But Putin also made clear that Moscow has no intention of giving up what it considers could be lucrative markets in Iran for Russian arms makers. “It would be stupid to allow under this pretext [that is, Israeli objections] our defense contractors, our defense companies, being forced out of the very attractive and lucrative [Iranian] market [and] being replaced by other suppliers, mostly from the West,” Putin told reporters.

Putin also said that he had offered Barak a proposal under which a joint Israeli-Russian commission would be created to serve as venue for discussions on the question of Iranian-Russian arms dealings. The Israeli side is reportedly not interested in an arrangement of this sort, which would parallel one created for Russian-U.S. discussions in the same area (Ha’aretz, November 3; Reuters, November 2). The tone of yesterday’s reports on the Barak-Putin meeting suggested a hardening on the part of both sides, one which could presage a cooling in recently improved Russian-Israeli ties.