Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 138

Iran and Russia issued a joint communique last week that urged the establishment of a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. The statement followed talks in Tehran on July 15-16 between high-ranking officials from the Russian and Iranian Foreign Ministries. The two sides also expressed concern about the recent nuclear tests conducted by India and Pakistan and urged all countries in the region to refrain from developing or deploying nuclear weapons on their territory. Both Russian and Iranian delegations nevertheless defended the right of all countries in the region to acquire and develop atomic energy facilities under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency.(Russian agencies, Xinhua, July 17-18)

The subtext of the Russian-Iranian joint communique was not hard to find. The call for a nuclear-free zone and the non-development of nuclear weapons was aimed in large part at Israel, a nuclear threshold state and one believed capable of deploying nuclear weapons quickly. The affirmation of the right for states in the Middle East to develop peaceful nuclear energy was, in turn, a defense of cooperation between Iran and Russia in that area. Washington has been critical of Russian plans to build a nuclear power plant in Iran, claiming that the project could further Iranian ambitions to develop nuclear weapons.

The Russian-Iranian communique also proclaimed the two countries’ commitment to the more general nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery. Moscow was said to have informed Tehran about Russia’s plans to strengthen its export control system in order to ensure that sensitive–or dual-use–technologies do not find their way out of Russia. (Russian agencies, July 17)

It was probably no coincidence that the Russian-Iranian talks were conducted as Moscow announced last week that it intended to investigate some nine Russian organizations suspected of having improperly exported dual-use technologies. (See the Monitor, July 16) Those investigations, which were warmly applauded by Washington, were directed in large part against organizations accused by the United States of leaking missile technologies to Iran. The July 15-16 Tehran talks were presumably an effort by Moscow, at least in part, to balance the political impact of the investigations and to reassure Tehran that they would not hinder broader cooperation between Russia and Iran.

In a similar fashion, the visit by the Russian delegation was probably timed also to reassure Iran over the implications of a five-day visit by high-ranking Russian intelligence officials to Israel. (See the Monitor, July 17) Like their American counterparts, Israeli authorities have repeatedly criticized Russia for its cooperation with Iran in nuclear energy and missile development. Israel has made improved relations with Russia–and a greater Russian role in the Middle East peace process–dependent on an end to Russian-Iranian cooperation in those areas.