Moves by Russia and Iran to reestablish military ties are raising anew US fears of nuclear proliferation.
Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev - in the highest-level Russian visit to Tehran since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution - heralds a late-December agreement as a "new phase of military and technical cooperation." Iranian President Mohamad Khatami calls it "an important landmark."
The spread of Russian advanced weaponry and nuclear know-how to Iran has worried Washington for years. In his presidential campaign, George W. Bush accused his opponent, Vice President Al Gore, of looking the other way as Russia sold arms to Iran. The Bush administration has set a goal to stop such sales.
Russia desperately needs cash and wants to keep its vast arms factories going. Iran - with oil revenues $9 billion above 1999 levels - says it wants to buy.
"We are their brothers-in-arms, and have long-term interests together," says Pavel Felgenhauer, an independent military analyst in Moscow, ticking off mutual concerns including Caspian oil to security issues in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Russia is edgy over Mr. Bush's stated support for creating a missile-defense system, and US readiness to walk away from the 1972 Antiballistic Missile treaty if Moscow won't permit changes.
The US, by far the world's largest arms dealer, has sought to curb some Russian sales. But on the eve of the US elections, the Kremlin abrogated a 1995 deal, made with then-Vice President Al Gore, in which Russia promised not to sell advanced conventional weapons to Iran.
Estimates of the potential value of new arms sales to Iran range from $1 billion to $7 billion.
Despite strong American concerns - and the threat of sanctions from Congress and the Clinton White House - Russian officials deny that their expertise and hardware will aid Iran's nuclear and nonconventional weapons programs. Russia says it will continue building a nuclear reactor for Iran at Bushehr, now nearly complete, despite US disapproval.
The warming relations go hand in hand with an effort by President Vladimir Putin to reassert Russia's role in world affairs and challenge what it disdainfully calls the "unipolar" world dominated by the US.
"The 'problem' of Iran is a relic of American imperialist ambitions," says Leonid Fituni, director of the Center for Strategic and Global Research in Moscow. "There is no real threat to the US from Iran."
Americans have warned for years that illegal proliferation - especially from Russia - has boosted Iranian nuclear-weapons ambitions. Several Russian institutions are already subject to US sanctions for this reason.
On Jan. 12, President Bush used the example of "some nation like Iran," to illustrate what he saw as the missile threat, in an interview with The New York Times.
Analysts say strident US opposition to closer Iran-Russia ties may be one reason for the new coziness. "The pressure from America ... is forcing a closer, more serious relation with Russia," says Nasser Hadian-Jazy, an American-educated political scientist at Tehran University. The US doesn't appreciate that Iran is stuck "between nuclear Pakistan and an Iraq with chemical weapons."
Iran may not fulfill Russian dreams of huge, cash-down sales, however, Mr. Hadian-Jazy says. "Even if we have it, still we are reluctant to spend it."
Increasing ties between Russia and Iran could affect US-Russian cooperation on various projects. In the decade since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US has spent $5 billion to help Russia safeguard its nuclear materials. A bipartisan panel commissioned by the Energy Department to review those programs recommended earlier this month that an additional $30 billion be spent in the next decade - if Russia cuts off weapons ties with Iran.
"One of the major obstacles to going forward is the Russia-Iran relationship," said Lloyd Cutler, former White House counsel and a leader of the panel, in comments reported in The New York Times. "What the Russians are doing vis-a-vis Iran is violating all the norms."
Yevgeny Adamov, Russia's nuclear energy minister, affirmed days later that nonproliferation "remains a priority" for Moscow, calling US rhetoric about Iran "politics, pure and simple."
"Not a single real fact" proves any Russian contribution to Iran's nuclear weapons development, he added. "It is really a question of whether the new administration will use this card in politics."
Crunching the numbers
The question many analysts are asking is how the numbers add up for Russia. In exchange for halting conventional arms sales to Iran, the 1995 agreement allowed Russia to launch Western satellites on its rockets. That deal has earned Russia nearly $2 billion and prevented the collapse of its space agency, says Konstantin Makienko, of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST) in Moscow. He estimates that Iran could, at most, have paid only $1.5 billion in those years on Russian arms.
Russia's weapon sales were worth $3.8 billion last year, according to CAST figures. Defense officials have stated goals of $6 billion per year.
Russia has become the biggest arms supplier to China, another foe of the US missile-defense shield. A new Russia-China military pact may result in $15 billion in Russian arms sales according to Jane's Intelligence Review in London.
Russia's arms bazaar could present a new challenge to Washington.
"Bush has told the Russians that it won't be business as usual, that 'the [American aid] fountain is going to dry up if you don't listen,' " says Shirzad Bozorgmehr, deputy editor of Tehran's English-language Iran News.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society