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U.S.: Russia-Iran Ties Worry Washington

  • Charles Recknagel

This week's visit of Iranian President Mohammad Khatami to Russia has prompted worried reactions from the United States. Washington is particularly troubled by Moscow's promises to sell Tehran new weapons and to complete construction of an Iranian nuclear power plant. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at the reasons for U.S. concerns.

Prague, 14 March 2001 (RFE/RL) -- -- Since Iran's President Mohammad Khatami began his visit to Russia on Monday (12 March), there have been ample signs that both countries intend to forge stronger ties in spite of any U.S. criticism.

Russian President Vladimir Putin followed up a meeting with Khatami by saying Moscow planned to resume sales of conventional arms to Iran after having desisted for more than five years. Putin also reiterated Russia's intention to help Iran complete its nuclear power plant near the Gulf port of Bushehr.

Putin's remarks were not unexpected. But they have sparked a worried response from Washington because they represent setbacks for U.S. policy goals in the region.

The Russian president's promise to renew arms sales completes a move by the Kremlin to withdraw from a secret Yeltsin-era pledge made to Washington in 1995 to refrain from selling weapons to Tehran. The Kremlin said last year it was abandoning the pledge but would not supply Iran anything related to weapons of mass destruction.

At the same time, Putin's promise to complete the long-stalled Bushehr reactor now adds to U.S. fears that Iran will not only build up its conventional forces but also try to develop nuclear weapons.

The United States accuses Iran of sponsoring terrorism and is especially concerned with the possibility Tehran could use any future nuclear capability to threaten Israel -- a state Iran does not recognize -- or other U.S. allies in the Mideast.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said shortly after Putin's remarks on 12 March that Washington cannot yet evaluate Russia's intentions because it does not know what kind of arms Moscow envisions selling.

But Boucher said Washington feels it is counterproductive for Russia to sell any advanced conventional weapons or sensitive technologies to Iran. He said the United States would voice its concerns, in his words, "quite energetically and repeatedly if that was the area that they started going into."

Analysts say that while the United States may be using guarded language in publicly criticizing the growing Russian-Iranian ties, the two countries' growing cooperation genuinely worries Washington and the level of that worry is likely to increase.

Geoffrey Kemp, a U.S. policy expert at the Nixon Center for Peace in Washington, tells RFE/RL that Washington recognizes Iran's need to upgrade its conventional military equipment, particularly for land operations. Iran's stores of such equipment were badly drained by the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war, when Tehran was subject to a worldwide embargo.

But Kemp says Washington is much less comfortable with Iran upgrading its naval capabilities, which it could use to project military power well beyond its borders.

"What would be of most concern to Americans would be any upgrading of the Iranian missile force, its maritime interdiction capabilities, submarines. These are much more troubling to the United States than tanks, artillery, and the more normal equipment you associate with land warfare."

Better Iranian naval capabilities would not only threaten the Gulf, where the United States has oil interests. They could also be a future worry for its economic involvement in Caspian Sea resources. Washington is keen to bring Caspian basin energy to Western markets through a pipeline from Baku to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. That suggests the United States may one day have to worry about how to protect its large energy investments in the region. Kemp says:

"You will have a Russian fleet and an Iranian fleet, presumably on the Caspian, and the interesting thing is that at what point will there be an American fleet on the Caspian? If you are going to invest in all this very expensive infrastructure and have Baku become as important as [oil terminals] in the Gulf, then ultimately the question of defending the assets becomes one that the Americans are going to have to talk about."

Russia and Iran are currently at odds over how to divide the energy resources of the Caspian Sea and the subject is high on the agenda of Khatami's visit, which ends tomorrow.

Russia favors a plan to divide the seabed among the states bordering the Caspian by using a principle that would leave Iran with about 13 percent of the seabed. Iran would like to divide the rights equally, giving each of the five shoreline states 20 percent.

Beyond worrying over Iran's future ability to project itself as a naval power, the United States sees still greater threats in Iran's ambitions to develop long-range ballistic missiles and from talk in Tehran that Iran needs to be a nuclear power.

Analysts say that raises two questions regarding Russia which the United States must now address.

One question is how to crack down on unofficial Russian cooperation in helping Iran develop missiles. Last month, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency identified Russia as a supplier of ballistic missile technology to Iran, an accusation Moscow strongly denies. So far Iran has built and tested several missiles, including the Shihab-3, which has a range of over 1,000 kilometers. Tehran says it is trying to build a longer-range version, the Shihab-4.

A second question is whether -- once Russia helps Iran complete the Bushehr nuclear power plant -- projects for other nuclear reactors will follow. If so, they would make it increasingly difficult for the United States to assure no such facilities are used for weapons development.

On both issues, Washington could impose sanctions on Russian firms or even on the Russian government. Washington previously has imposed sanctions on several Russian scientific institutes for allegedly helping Iran develop nuclear technology.

But with or without such punitive measures, there is every indication that Russian-Iranian military cooperation will be a continuing source of friction in U.S.-Russian relations.

Patrick Clawson, a policy expert with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, tells RFE/RL that the United States regards Russian-Iranian cooperation as intended to limit U.S. influence in the region.

"The United States government is not going to be happy about that relationship so long as that relationship is based on a common suspicion about -- and hostility to -- the United States, and unfortunately that is the basis on which Iran has tried to promote the relationship."

Putin addressed that U.S. concern in his remarks to the press after meeting Khatami on 12 March. The Russian president said growing Moscow-Tehran cooperation, in his words, is not "aimed at any third party." Russia and Iran, he added, share a "coinciding analysis of the situation in the world today."

(RFE/RL's Persian Service correspondent Homayoun Majd contributed to this report)