For more than 40 years, the Middle East was an arena of superpower contention, with Moscow and Washington vying to exploit the region's fiery antagonisms in their global competition for power and influence.
The area is again fueling discord between the former cold-war foes. Not only are they at odds over Iraqi defiance of United Nations weapons inspections, but Russian nuclear-reactor sales and alleged missile-technology transfers to Iran are angering the White House and fueling a backlash in the GOP-run Congress.
A fresh test of United States-Russian relations may come today, as the UN Security Council weighs a response to Iraq's latest intransigence in the crisis over the UN hunt for its illegal biological and chemical arms.
After three days of talks with Richard Butler, the UN inspection chief, Baghdad called Wednesday for a delay in UN efforts to search President Saddam Hussein's numerous palaces. It wants the matter dropped until technical experts review in April the work of Mr. Butler's UN Special Commission (UNSCOM).
The US and Britain reject the Iraqi demand, saying the delay could give Iraq more time to brew biological and chemical warfare agents. Both reserve the option of using military action to compel Iraqi compliance with UNSCOM. A 30,000-strong US force in the Gulf was joined this week by a British aircraft carrier.
But while Russia backs full access for UNSCOM to all Iraqi sites, it has consistently opposed measures to force compliance or penalize obstructions by Iraq, which maintained close cold war ties with Moscow.
Instead, Russia says Iraqi cooperation should be encouraged by speeding Iraqi release from UN sanctions, a move requiring UNSCOM to certify the elimination of illegal arms. By pledging to work for that goal, Moscow defused the crisis in November. But the confrontation escalated anew after Iraq blocked a US-led UNSCOM team last week.
In further gestures to Iraq, Russia says UNSCOM is overstaffed by Americans, and is now offering to provide spy planes to replace US aircraft working for the UN, an idea spurned by the Clinton administration.
Some US officials and independent experts warn that a failure by Moscow and Washington to agree on how to quickly resolve the impasse could compound other tensions over the Gulf. That could lead, they say, to a serious downturn in overall relations that are already under strain by fractious issues, especially the US plan to expand NATO.
"There is no doubt that the biggest challenge we face, and the greatest difficulty in finding common solutions, is in the Persian Gulf," Stephen Sestanovich, the Clinton administration's special envoy to the former Soviet Union, said in a Jan. 15 speech on US-Russian relations in Washington.
Igor Zevelev, a Russian researcher at the US Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, says the US and Russia share too many crucial interests, such as arms control, to allow frictions over the Gulf to hurt overall ties. "Both sides must do something," he says. "The situation is being aggravated."
US officials and independent analysts attribute Russia's policies in the Gulf partly to the lure of doing business with Iraq and Iran, both on the US list of "rogue" states. In the latter, Russia is building a $1 billion nuclear power project and its largest firm, Gazprom, is part of a French-led group that has signed a $2 billion natural gas deal.
The US also says Russian firms are providing technology and advice that are allowing Iran to develop missiles capable of hitting Israel. The Kremlin denies the charges.
MOSCOW, meanwhile, is awaiting payment by Baghdad of a $7 billion debt, while Russian firms are eager to activate deals with Iraq's oil industry. Neither can happen until the UN sanctions, imposed after Baghdad's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, are lifted.
Experts say Russian policies go beyond economic interests. They also believe Moscow, piqued by its loss of superpower status, seeks to be a major player again in a region it has historically considered its backyard.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser in the Carter administration, says the Clinton administration's policies of trying to isolate Iraq and Iran have given Moscow the opening it needs.
"We are creating opportunities for them [Russia] that are not only enhancing their position in the region, but creating conditions for a backlash in the [US-Russian] relationship," he says.
Some experts go further, saying they believe Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeni Primakov, an Arabist and friend of Saddam, is trying to make it harder for the US to bring the Iraqi leader to heel. By doing so, they say, he undercuts Washington's prestige, raising doubts about the ability of the world's leading power to manage crises in a critical area of the globe.
"This is a calculated effort to test our resolve in dealing with rather complex situations," says Paula Dobriansky of the Council on Foreign Relations.
In addition, Mr. Clinton is struggling to shore up his personal prestige at home, where he is beseiged by potentially devastating allegations that he had an affair with a White House intern.
Mr. Zevelev rejects the idea that Russia seeks to undermine US policy. He says Mr. Primakov is trying to strike a balance between domestic pressure for improved relations with Iraq and Iran, and relations with the US.
"It's important for domestic political reasons in Russia to show it still matters in the world arena," he says. "We must understand that Russian foreign policy is driven by very different interests." Adds Zevelev: "It remains to be seen if this gamble will work or not."
Key Points in The Un-Iraq Dispute
* United Nations Special Commission on Iraq: Established in 1991 after the Gulf War, UNSCOM's job is to determine whether Iraq has complied with Security Council orders to destroy long-range missiles and chemical and biological weapons.
* Inspectors: The UN-affiliated International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is responsible for ensuring that weapons are dismantled. UNSCOM has representatives from 21 countries. It is headed by Richard Butler, an Australian.
* Key Security Council Resolutions: No. 687 requires that Iraq not only destroy weapons mentioned above, but also open files on such weapons to UN inspectors. No. 715 provides for expanded monitoring to continue indefinitely, using sensor devices and surveillance cameras.
* Iraq's interpretation: Resolution 687 also affirms the "sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of Iraq," which Baghdad claims gives it the right to keep inspectors from certain sites to protect national security.