By Wade Boese
Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov informed the United States in early November that beginning December 1 Russia will withdraw from a 1995 agreement not to sell arms to Iran. The Clinton administration, which defended the agreement against strong Republican attacks in October, warned Russia it could face sanctions if it signs new arms agreements with Tehran. U.S. and Russian government experts will meet in Moscow the first week of December to discuss the issue.
Russia signed a June 1995 agreement with the United States to stop selling arms to Iran and to complete the delivery of all weapons previously sold to Iran by the end of 1999. Officially termed an "aide memoire," the agreement also stated that the United States would not sanction Russia for its arms deals with Iran that were already in the pipeline. According to the administration, Vice President Al Gore made that assurance only after the State Department, Pentagon, the Joint Staff, and the intelligence community had reviewed the pending Russian deals and determined that they would not trigger sanctions under U.S. law.
The United States and Russia also agreed that the text of the aide memoire would remain confidential, and in his letter, which arrived in Washington the first week of November, Ivanov said that it was the recent U.S. publicity surrounding the agreement that had compelled Moscow to formally break its vows. While U.S. and Russian officials have publicly referred to the agreement since 1995, the aide memoire drew considerable public attention in October when U.S. newspapers and several Republican legislators portrayed it as a secret pact in which Gore ignored U.S. law by acquiescing to Russian arms sales to Iran. (See ACT, November 2000.)
A senior administration official interviewed November 27 called Ivanov's justification a "pretext," claiming that Russia simply desired "freedom of action to sell arms to Iran." The official further noted that some Russian bureaucrats had wanted "to get out of the aide memoire" for some time. Arms sales are an important source of hard currency for Moscow, which just reorganized its state-owned arms selling firms to reduce unwanted competition that was driving Russian weapon prices lower. (See p. 27.)
Though the Clinton administration received notice of Russia's intentions the first week of November, the Russian plans did not become public until The Washington Post reported on the letter on November 22. The senior administration official explained that the administration did not make the letter public because it wanted the chance to first respond to the Russians.
U.S. officials "at the highest levels," according to another administration source, warned Russia that there would be consequences, including the possibility of sanctions, if Moscow concluded new arms contracts with Iran. President Bill Clinton raised the issue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, held in Brunei on November 15 and 16.
Talking on the sidelines of the November 27-28 Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe meeting in Vienna, Ivanov and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright agreed that U.S. and Russian experts would meet the following week to explore and address U.S. concerns about Russian arms to Iran. Russian officials, including Ivanov, contend Moscow has yet to conclude any new arms deals with Iran, while Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev on November 23 said Russia will continue to follow all international non-proliferation prohibitions regarding weapons of mass destruction.
Whether U.S. sanctions will be imposed in the future will depend on what types of weapons Russia may sell to Iran. A U.S. law passed in 1992 calls for sanctions on countries supplying "destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons" to Iran or Iraq, while other legislation, first passed in 1993, mandates sanctions for countries transferring "lethal military equipment" to state sponsors of terrorism, which Iran is classified as by the United States.
Russia has not strictly abided by its 1995 commitments over the past few years, selling some $200 million in weapons to Iran between 1996 and 1999, according to the Congressional Research Service. Russia also did not finish deliveries of its pre-1995 deals before the deadline set out in the aide memoire. Yet despite Russia's less-than-perfect record of sticking to its commitments, Department of State Spokesman Richard Boucher on October 30 noted the agreement had improved U.S. security over the past several years "by limiting the number and quality of weapons that have gone to Iran."