The defense ministers of Russia and Iran today signed a military cooperation agreement that is believed to include arms sales that will earn Russia up to $300 million a year. While Russia offered assurances that the agreement would not include technology to support weapons of mass destruction, the deal may cause some consternation in the U.S., where the administration has accused Iran of supporting terrorism.
Moscow, 2 October 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani and his Russian counterpart Sergei Ivanov signed an agreement today on Russian weapons sales to Iran.
The agreement, which may earn Russia as much as $300 million a year, comes amid concerns in the West that Iran may be among the countries supporting terrorist activity.
Both the United States and Israel have, in the past, expressed particular concern that improving ties between Russia and Iran could help spread weapons of mass destruction.
Speaking to reporters after the signing, Ivanov said Russia decided to sign the agreement in March -- when Iran's president, Mohammad Khatami, was visiting Moscow -- and long before last month's terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.
Ivanov also stressed that today's agreement is in full compliance with international law, saying: "This agreement is no secret. It conforms to all the norms and standards of international law, and is practically identical to other documents that Russia has signed with many other countries."
International law prohibits the sale of weapons of mass destruction. According to Ruslan Pukhov, the director of Russia's Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, Moscow is likely to respect the ban.
"It is forbidden to sell atomic weapons. Russia respects the international agreement concerning atomic weapons and atomic energy. So [Russia] is not going [to violate it] -- these are just groundless suspicions that appear from time to time [in the media]. As far as ordinary weapons are concerned, Iran is interested in a wide range [of weapons], beginning with the armament of its ground forces to that of its air forces."
Iran is reportedly looking to buy anti-aircraft systems, in particular, portable Igla missiles and Tor-M1 systems. It may also be looking to purchase S-300 long-range missile systems, as well as Moskit and Yakhont antiship missiles.
Pukhov says a deal with Iran will be profitable for Russia at a time when its defense industry is sagging.
"Iran is also very important for the Russian arms market. Hypothetically, Iran may spend between $300 and $400 million a year [on arms]. Within five years, the total sum could rise to $1.5 billion or more."
Such figures could make Iran the third-largest purchaser of Russian arms after China and India. Arms supplies to China and India account for more than $4 billion a year. Russia is the world's fourth-biggest arms exporter, after the United States, Britain, and France.
In related developments today, Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry announced that Moscow would soon deliver the first reactor for a nuclear power station it is building for Tehran at Bushehr in western Iran.
Today's agreements are part of warmer relations between the two countries, which began last November when Russia decided to lift a ban on arms sales to Tehran. Russia suspended arms sales to Iran in 1995 under a secret agreement brokered by then-Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.
Iranian Defense Minister Shamkhani thanked Russia today for "liquidating the Gore-Chernomyrdin memorandum." He called relations between Russia and Iran "historical and long-term," and said: "I am very glad that today we have managed to sign an agreement on military-technical cooperation. This document is not aimed against any country but is aimed at ensuring peace and stability in our region." Pukhov says that Iran is Russia's closest ally in the Middle East region:
"Iran, together with Armenia, is the only full Russian ally in the Middle East region. Even if Iran has a very important role in the Muslim world, it openly backed the Russian military operation in Chechnya. [Iran] never condemned it -- [on the contrary,] several times it condemned Chechen terrorism and separatism."
Independent defense analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says that now -- at a time when the international community is fighting against global terrorism -- is not the appropriate moment for Russia to sign an arms deal with Iran.
"[Putin] repeats what he said before: 'We are fighting a common enemy and we should fight together.' But at the same time, Russia wants to throw billions of dollars worth of arms to Syria and Iran, which the United States believes to be terrorist-supporting states."
Aleksandr Gurov, the chairman of the Duma's Committee for Security, said yesterday that Russia would work to ensure that the weapons it sells do not fall into the wrong hands:
"We may sell [Iran] weapons for money -- the same way America does [with other countries]. But we are a big, civilized country and, of course, we will consider the issue of where the arms [we sell] end up. If there is even a very small doubt that the arms may end up in the hands of some terrorist organization, in my opinion there shouldn't be any contacts."
The meeting between the two defense chiefs took on a new significance in light of last month's attacks on the U.S. Ivanov said Russia and Iran have been battling international terrorism and drug trafficking for many years -- a reference to Afghanistan, which Ivanov called the "main harbor" for many terrorist groups and drug manufacturers.
Shamkhani was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying Iran would support an eventual attack against terrorist bases in Afghanistan, "if this were within the framework of the international community and in the framework of the United Nations."
Shamkhani also said that it is important to clarify what terrorism really is. He accused Israel of being a "university of terrorism" and called Prime Minister Ariel Sharon its "teacher."
Shamkhani, who will remain in Russia through 5 October, is scheduled to visit weapons factories in the Moscow region and St. Petersburg.