US Winks as Russians Sell Weapons to Iran

NOT so long ago, the Reagan administration was reviled by its political adversaries for failing to notify Congress of the transfer of arms to Iran.

Their frenzied criticism stemmed from the shipment of a meager $13 million worth of mostly antiquated defensive weapons and spare parts to Iran in an effort to leverage the release of Americans held hostage in the Middle East. They were also trying to raise money for the beleaguered Contras in Nicaragua.

The Clinton administration appears to be side-stepping laws that apply to arms transfers to Iran, but curiously there are no special congressional committees created to investigate the matter, no public hearings on the issue, and no calls for the president's resignation.

It is ironic that many of the same people who lambasted President Reagan's modest arms deal with Iran are silent about Russia's role - a major United States aid recipient - in fueling Iran's program to build a menacing, offensive military force.

Over the past few years, published accounts of Russian arms sales to Iran have painted an alarming picture. By most estimates, Russia is assisting Iran's modernization of its weapons inventory to the tune of about $1 billion a year.

And these transfers aren't just spare parts and mothballed equipment. Rather, Russia is supplying Iran with current-generation, state-of-the-art combat weaponry, including sophisticated MIG fighter and Su-24 fighter bomber aircraft; T-72 tanks, armored vehicles, and a factory to build them; a variety of specialized missiles and modern antishipping mines; two ``Kilo Class'' attack submarines (with a third awaiting delivery), making Iran the only Persian Gulf state so equipped; and technology and know-how that will enable Iran to produce certain advanced weapons indigenously.

Now we surely must ponder the US's wisdom in providing literally billions of dollars in aid to a country that turns around and helps outfit a pariah regime in Iran that threatens US interests. Pure and simple, that's an ill-advised policy. But the issue goes beyond just a questionable policy judgment; it is also a matter of law.

Adopted in 1992 (and co-sponsored by then-Sen. Albert Gore), the Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act calls for mandatory sanctions (including the termination of foreign assistance for a year) against any nation known to be supporting Iran or Iraq in their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction or destabilizing conventional arms. Furthermore, a provision contained in the last two annual foreign-aid funding bills prohibits US aid to countries that provide lethal military equipment to any of the terrorism-sponsoring nations - Iran being a charter member of that group.

For an aid cutoff to be imposed against a weapons provider, the president must first make a determination that a country has provided ``destabilizing'' or ``lethal'' weapons and, if so, whether or not to waive mandatory sanctions based on the US's national interest. Despite ample evidence, the president has failed to make the requisite determination, and he has not exercised his waiver authority. Rather, the administration seems to view these laws as mere suggestions.

According to published reports last April, Undersecretary of State for International Security Affairs Lynn Davis said of the Iran-Iraq Non-Proliferation Act: ``It's not something we wish to hang over the Russians.''

This permissive attitude was evident during the Clinton-Yeltsin summit in Washington, when President Clinton accepted at face value the Russian leader's promise not to enter into any new weapons contracts with Iran but to only service existing ones.

The administration proclaimed this to be real progress despite its inability to pin down Russia on two key questions: What types of weapons are already in the pipeline to Iran, and what precisely does ``service existing contracts'' mean?

I should think the administration would want to hold Russia accountable for its promiscuous dealmaking with Tehran, the consequences of which render Western shipping in the Gulf and our friends in the region more vulnerable than ever to Iranian aggression.

Just as sobering is its potential to undermine further progress in the Middle East peace process. I am not eager to terminate our assistance to Russia, especially at a pivotal time in its fragile transition to democracy. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to watch billions in US aid dollars flow to Russia while the administration winks at Moscow's reckless cooperation with an outlaw nation that -

let's not forget - still views us as ``The Great Satan.'' Of course, also at issue here is the matter of our president's compliance with the law of the land.

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