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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Russia Stands by Decision To Sell Arms to Iran

January/February 2001

By Wade Boese

In December meetings with high-level U.S. government officials, Russia reaffirmed that it would sell weapons to Iran, confirming Moscow's earlier declaration that it would withdraw from a June 1995 agreement not to sell arms to Tehran. During the talks, Russia said it would abide by international agreements preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and highlighted a new committee that had been established December 1 to oversee the Russian arms trade.

A U.S. team led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Nonproliferation Controls John Barker discussed the issue of Russian arms sales to Iran in Moscow on December 6 and 7. The Department of State would only say that "full, frank, and comprehensive discussions" took place.

Secretary of Defense William Cohen also raised the issue on December 6 with Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev on the sidelines of a NATO defense ministers' meeting in Brussels. Sergeyev stated Russia would sell only "defensive" weapons to Tehran. However, there is no common definition of what a defensive weapon is.

Sergeyev traveled to Iran for a three-day visit from December 26 to 28 with the aim of renewing military cooperation between the two states. Though there were no reports of concluded arms deals, on December 28 State Department spokesman Philip Reeker described the United States as "particularly disturbed" by Russian press accounts that Moscow would be prepared to sell missiles and submarines to Tehran. Some of the items reportedly discussed as being for sale, Reeker said, "would pose a serious threat, and so calling it defensive is not going to diminish that threat."

A 1992 U.S. law calls for sanctions on countries exporting "destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons" to Iran or Iraq, while legislation first passed in 1993 mandates sanctions on exporters of lethal military equipment to state sponsors of terrorism, a classification that includes Iran. Russia could therefore face U.S. sanctions depending on the types of weapons it sells to Tehran.

Moscow Increases Export Control

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree December 1 establishing a new body, the Russian Federation Committee for Military-Technical Cooperation With Foreign States, to run Russia's arms trade. Charged with licensing and monitoring Russian arms exports, the committee will be headed by Deputy Defense Minister Mikhail Dmitriev, who will report directly to Putin.

Apparently aiming to exercise greater personal control over Russian weapons exports, Putin will make decisions on shipping weapons to countries that are not pre-approved recipients of Russian arms as well as decisions on shipping arms that are not pre-approved for export. Putin consolidated Russia's two leading arms exporting companies into a single firm, Rosoboronexport, on November 4. (See ACT, December 2000.)