Publication: Monitor Volume: 4 Issue: 11

The Clinton Administration claimed over the weekend to have made some progress in stemming the flow of Russian missile technology to Iran, but administration officials conceded that the problem is far from being resolved. The latest developments in what has now been a year-long saga follow the return from Moscow last week of special envoy Frank Wisner. The veteran diplomat was appointed by President Bill Clinton last July to resolve the dispute between Russia and the U.S. over allegations that Russian experts — with or without the sanction of the Russian government — are helping Iran to develop medium- and long-range ballistic missiles. Official assistance rendered in this area by Moscow would be a violation of the Missile Technology Control regime and also of a 1995 agreement by which Russia agreed to halt conventional arms transfers to Iran.

Last week’s talks were the fourth time that Wisner has met with Russian authorities on the proliferation issue, and other Clinton Administration officials, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the president himself, have also repeatedly urged the Kremlin to ensure that the flow of Russian missile technology to Iran is stopped. But the results have been meager, and congressional critics have grown increasingly critical of what they say is the Administration’s failure to move forcefully enough on the issue. The White House, which fears that sanctions against Russia threatened by lawmakers could derail U.S.-Russian cooperation in other areas, has also been squeezed by the Israeli government, which has itself been lobbying for stronger actions by Washington. The missile issue is sure to be raised again during Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this week.

Clinton Administration officials offered few details on the content of Wisner’s latest talks in Moscow, but they did say that the envoy had for the first time won concrete assurances — involving "specific measures within a specific time frame" — that Russian authorities would move to stop the technology leaks. The same officials indicated that, for domestic political reasons, Kremlin leaders had to appear to be acting on their own, and not under pressure from Washington. They also suggested that Moscow’s change in attitude had been primarily a consequence not of lobbying by the U.S. or Israel, but of the Kremlin’s acknowledgment that the acquisition by Iran of ballistic missiles constitutes a threat to Russia’s own security.

Kremlin leaders have to date publicly dismissed the accusations of Russian complicity in Iran’s missile development program, but U.S. officials indicated over the weekend that Russian involvement is beyond dispute. Among other things, the officials charge that Iranian students are still being trained in Russian technical institutes while Russian missile technicians continue to work in Iran. Stephen Sestanovich, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for the former Soviet states, put it bluntly in a Washington speech on January 16 when he said that "Iran is taking advantage of Russia’s economic woes and large reservoir of defense technology and scientific talent to accelerate development of an indigenous ballistic missile capability." He also said that Russia’s involvement in Iran’s missile development program is the biggest problem in U.S.-Russian relations, and also that, despite the suggestion of progress made last week, Washington and Moscow have yet to reach an agreement on the issue. (The New York Times, AP, Russian agencies, January 16; Reuter, AP, January 17; The Washington Post, January 18. For background, see the following Monitors from 1997: August 27, September 12, October 3, November 6, November 18)

Federation Council Speaker Warns of Dangers of Special Deals Between Center and Regions.