Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 177

Russia has remained a key player over the past few days in the intense diplomatic maneuvering that has accompanied the Bush administration’s efforts to construct an international antiterrorist coalition. But even as President Vladimir Putin impressed German audiences with his diplomatic performance during a visit to Berlin this week–one that centered on the terrorism crisis–and as Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov made some potentially significant statements on the same subject during a visit to NATO headquarters in Brussels, one of the less noted but more interesting developments actually came out of the Russian capital yesterday. According to diplomatic sources quoted by the Interfax news agency, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani will arrive in Moscow on October 1 for several days of talks with a host of top Russian government and defense industry officials. Shamkhani’s visit demonstrates at one and the same time the difficulties facing the Kremlin in the current crisis as it attempts to negotiate a path between the United States and its Western partners, on the one hand, and its more traditional allies–like Iran–on the other. Indeed, Iran has itself emerged as a player of significance in the more general context of the developing war against international terrorism. The Bush administration tentatively wooed Tehran in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, largely on the basis of the Iranian leadership’s unexpected offering of condolences after the tragedy. But hopes (slim as they probably were) of including Tehran in a U.S.-led effort against terrorism appeared to collapse yesterday when Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei angrily denounced Washington’s campaign.

The delicacy of Russian-Iranian relations–as perceived both in Moscow and Tehran–has been evidenced by two meetings that did not take place. The first was a visit to Moscow by Shamkhani that was to have begun on September 4, but was postponed because of a hastily arranged stay in the Russian capital by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (see the Monitor, September 4). Against the background of the September 11 attacks that visit now seems like a long time ago, but the Iranian postponement did reflect the sharp tensions in the Middle East that have been building over many months and have only intensified in the wake of the September 11 bombings. A suggestion of continuing tension between Tehran and Moscow over Russia’s ties with the West was also highlighted on September 18, when sources in Moscow reported that a senior Iranian delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Ali Ahani had put off a planned visit to Moscow. There was apparently no official reason given for the postponement, but unnamed Russian diplomatic sources were quoted on September 18 as suggesting that it might have been related to the visit of another top official–in this case, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage–to the Russian capital.

Shamkhani’s visit is important to Russia in part because it is expected to further talks on arms sales some sources say could earn Russia perhaps as much as US$300 million or more annually over at least the next several years. Some in Russia see those revenues as crucial to the country’s hard-pressed defense industrial center, which has suffered the misfortune of precipitous declines in Russian procurement spending over the past decade and which desperately needs to broaden its foreign client base beyond China and India. Together, Beijing and New Delhi buy more than 80 percent of the weapons sold by Russian manufacturers on the world market. But Shamkhani’s visit is also significant because it reflects Russia’s concentrated diplomatic effort over the past several years to build relations with Tehran more generally, as part of an effort not only to raise its profile in the Persian Gulf, but also to demonstrate its foreign policy independence and readiness to defy the United States. Washington continues to view Iran as a state sponsoring terrorism and has strongly objected to both defense and nuclear cooperation between Russia and Iran.

That military-technical cooperation will be high on Shamkhani’s agenda when he arrives in Russia was made clear by the itinerary for his visit described in yesterday’s reports. He is to meet with his opposite number, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, as well as with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Russian Security Council Secretary Vladimir Rushailo, a top Defense Ministry arms official named Mikhail Dmitriev and senior managers from the Russian state arms trading company Rosoboroneksport. The reports also say that Shamkhani and his Russian counterparts will sign a framework agreement on military-technical cooperation. Exactly what will follow is unclear, though the two sides are said to be close to finalizing a deal on a US$100-million sale of Russian armored personnel carriers to Tehran. Potentially more important is the long list of advanced Russian weapons systems in which Iran is said to be interested. It includes Su-27 combat planes, S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and several other missile systems.

Putin’s decision earlier this week–which came after a long telephone conversation with U.S. President George W. Bush–to offer limited support for the U.S.-led antiterrorism campaign has led to considerable press speculation as to what the United States might have promised in return. That speculation has tended over the past several days to center on Russia’s war in Chechnya and on suggestions that the Bush administration is prepared to join with European countries in soft-peddling Western opposition to Russia’s war in Chechnya. But it may be worth remembering that Putin was quoted earlier this week, in the run up to his trip to Berlin, as having told German news organizations that Russia might actually be willing to reconsider future arms sales to Iran if the United States were to offer some compensation for the business that Russian producers would lose. The corollary to that statement, of course, is that Moscow will go through with the sales if the United States does not give it a good reason to forego them. But Putin did appear to indicate that Moscow intends, in any event, to fulfill sales contracts with Iran signed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, contracts that were largely set aside in the late 1990s following the signing of an informal agreement between the Kremlin and the Clinton administration. What Putin may have been hinting at was Russia’s current readiness to negotiate with the United States on the issue of potential new arms contracts between Moscow and Tehran. Russian willingness to forego such sales would presumably come at a high price, however, because of the high potential revenues at stake and because, as such Russian commentators as Pavel Felgenhauer have pointed out, there is an increasingly large and influential constituency in Russia’s defense complex that wants to share in those revenues.

The Kremlin also appears to be prepared to push for including Tehran in any American-led antiterrorism coalition, though it is unclear whether that effort will survive Khamenei’s announcement of yesterday. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, for example, raised the issue yesterday during a meeting of NATO defense ministers that he was invited to attend, and suggested that Moscow and Tehran would soon launch discussions on the matter. He intimated that, because Moscow has closer ties to Iran than the United States does, the Kremlin might be better positioned to pull Tehran into the coalition (AFP, Interfax, September 18, 26; Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 21; AP, September 22).