Putin Reaffirms Arms Sales, Nuclear Assistance to Iran

Wade Boese

Hosting a visit by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami on March 12, Russian President Vladimir Putin reaffirmed that Russia would pursue new arms sales to Iran and complete construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr. Long critical of Moscow's relations with Tehran, Washington immediately expressed concern and warned Russia that selling advanced weapons and technologies to Iran could jeopardize better relations with the United States.

Early last November, the Kremlin notified the United States that on December 1 Russia would withdraw from a June 1995 agreement to end arms sales to Iran. Russia had not strictly adhered to the agreement, selling an estimated $200 million in weapons to Iran between 1996 and 1999, according to the Congressional Research Service. Nevertheless, the State Department believes the agreement succeeded in limiting Russian arms deals during the period, and it opposes Russia's abrogation of its commitment.

Russia and Iran did not finalize any specific weapons contracts during Khatami's four-day visit to Russia, but deals may be signed later this spring or early summer. The two sides did sign a number of agreements, including a Treaty on the Foundations of Mutual Relations and the Principles of Cooperation, aimed at expanding bilateral relations and trade.

Putin and other senior Russian officials have said only defensive weapons will be sold to Iran, but State Department spokesman Richard Boucher noted on March 12 that Moscow has not been "quite clear" on what qualifies as defensive weaponry. Russian and Iranian press reports suggest that tanks, armored combat vehicles, fighter aircraft, helicopters, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, and advanced S-300 air defense systems may all be on Iran's shopping list, though it remains unclear whether Iran could afford to purchase that amount of weaponry.

Putin justified the potential deals on March 12, stating that "Iran has the right to ensure its security and defense capability" and explaining that Russia has "economic reasons" for making such sales. Since assuming the Russian presidency, Putin has pushed to increase Russian revenue from weapons sales by trying to revive sales to old Soviet clients and seeking new arms markets and by reducing competition between Russian arms companies, which had been driving Russian weapons prices down.

Testifying before the Senate Budget Committee on March 14, Secretary of State Colin Powell implied that, if it wants improved relations with the United States, Russia should rethink to whom it sells arms. "It would not be wise to invest in regimes that are not following accepted standards of international behavior," Powell declared. The U.S. government classifies Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism and believes Iran is seeking to develop nuclear weapons despite its legal obligation not to under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

Depending on what types of arms Russia sells Iran, it could engender more than just ill will from Washington. The 1992 Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act calls on the United States to impose sanctions on countries supplying "destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons" to either Baghdad or Tehran. Other U.S. legislation prohibits U.S. foreign assistance funds from being sent to countries that deliver "lethal military equipment" to states sponsoring terrorism. A March 16 bipartisan letter to President George W. Bush from 29 U.S. representatives reminded him of this latter legislation and asserted that the results of Russia's March 12 meeting with Iran "warrants the immediate attention of the United States and requires appropriate, significant action."

Not directly related to Putin's visit with Khatami, on March 13 President Bush declared a national emergency with respect to Iran, an action necessary for keeping U.S. sanctions in place that have been mandated by executive orders. The national emergency expires every year on March 15, requiring an executive extension. Bush, according to a White House statement, extended the emergency because Iranian actions and policies "continue to threaten the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States."

Although much of the recent U.S. criticism focused largely on Russia's almost certain future arms sales to Iran, Boucher added on March 13 that the United States did not think Russian cooperation with Iran in the nuclear sphere is "well advised." Russia has a contract to complete a nuclear reactor at Bushehr, and Putin stated that Moscow would finish the project even though work has been delayed, a holdup he attributed to "sluggishness on both the Iranian and Russian side." The reactor is scheduled to be completed in 2003.

Putin stressed that Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran is conducted "in accordance with the rules of [the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] and under its control." The IAEA is responsible for verifying that nuclear facilities and materials under its supervision are not used or diverted for weapons purposes.

Iran also reportedly again raised its interest in a second reactor for the same site after Russia finishes work on the current one. Putin may have alluded to Iran's plans during his March 12 remarks when he noted Tehran "has plans for expanding its nuclear power industry, and the Russian Federation, in accordance with international rules, is interested and willing to take part in the appropriate tenders for participation in this work."