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Russia: Khatami's Visit Focuses On Arms, Caspian

  • Sophie Lambroschini

Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has begun a four-day visit to Russia expected to cement what has become an important strategic partnership for both countries. RFE/RL's Moscow correspondent Sophie Lambroschini is covering the visit, the first by an Iranian head of state to Moscow in 40 years. She files this report:

Moscow, 12 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian President Mohammad Khatami has arrived in Moscow for a four-day visit expected to be dominated by the issues of Caspian Sea resources and bilateral military cooperation.

A smiling Khatami was greeted at Moscow's Vnukovo airport by Deputy Prime Minister Ilya Klebanov, who is responsible, among other matters, for arms sales.

Khatami met first with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. He is due also to hold talks with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov and top foreign policy and Duma leaders. In addition to Moscow, Khatami will travel to the cities of Saint Petersburg and Kazan, in Tatarstan.

Our correspondent reports that while the two countries have several points of common interest, Iranian officials have said Khatami's visit is not expected to solve one of their main sticking points: how to divide the rich resources of the Caspian Sea.

Iran and Russia are two of five states -- along with Kazakshtan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan -- that border the Caspian, whose seabed is estimated to hold some of the world's largest untapped oil reserves.

Russia favors a plan to divide the seabed using the median-line principle, which would leave Iran with about 13 percent of the seabed. Iran, on the other hand, would like to divide the rights equally, giving each shoreline state 20 percent of the resources.

Mehdi Safari, Iran's ambassador to Moscow, told RFE/RL that a "common declaration" on Caspian resources -- but no "agreement" -- would be announced after the talks.

A summit meeting among the five Caspian nations, planned for earlier this month, was postponed because of Russian-Iranian differences.

Military cooperation, in particular Russian arms sales to Iran, is also expected to be a major theme of Khatami's visit.

The United States has criticized the developing ties between Moscow and Tehran, but Russia announced last year that it no longer intended to observe an agreement with the United States under which it was to stop selling conventional weapons to Iran. The about-face prompted the White House to threaten Russia with sanctions.

Estimates say Russia could earn anywhere from $2 billion to $7 billion from sales of conventional weapons and training to Iran.

According to the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya Gazeta," deliveries would include spare parts, communications equipment, Su-24, Su-25, and Mig-29 fighter planes, as well as helicopters. Other newspapers say that the sale of S-300 missiles could also be planned. The first contracts could be signed in the middle of the year.

Tehran has been under a Western embargo on advanced technology transfers since the 1979 Islamic revolution and is seeking to build up its military forces, which were crippled by the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

It's not clear if nuclear issues will be on the agenda of Khatami's talks with Russian officials.

Russia has been helping Iran to complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant, and plans to build three more nuclear reactors at Bushehr.

The U.S. administration of President George W. Bush has accused Russia of being an "active proliferator" of nuclear technology, warning that civilian nuclear projects could help Iran develop the ability to produce nuclear weapons. Washington classifies Iran among a number of rogue states said to be secretly seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.

Khatami's visit comes after a renewed pledge yesterday in Teheran to pursue reforms in spite of opposition by hard-liners. Khatami was elected on a reformist ticket by a 20-million-vote majority in 1997.

During the past few years, bilateral relations have grown warmer. Our correspondent reports that both countries see their common interest in containing U.S. influence in Central Asia, the Caspian region, and the Caucasus.

According to French analyst Olivier Roy, both countries were reluctant to see former Soviet republics achieving full-fledged independence too soon. He says Teheran prefers to see Russia -- rather than the U.S. or its Saudi or Turkish allies -- filling the regional vacuum left by the disappearance of the Soviet Union.