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U.S./Russia: Officials Agree On Satellite Launch Cooperation

Boston, 27 July 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As Russian Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin meets today (Tuesday) with U.S. Vice President Al Gore in Washington, officials say they have already agreed in advance to increase cooperation on launches of satellites.

A senior Gore aide said at a briefing for reporters on Friday that the United States would authorize four additional launches of commercial satellites aboard Russian rockets. The decision to raise Russia's launch quota followed talks with commercial interests and Russian officials, said Leon Fuerth, Gore's national security adviser.

The move may mark an easing of tensions between the two sides over the spread of Russian weapons technology. In January, the U.S. State Department threatened to freeze Russia's quota of satellite launches in response to alleged sales of nuclear and missile technology to Iran. Washington also announced sanctions against three Russian institutes for transfers to Iran. A total of 10 Russian entities have since been placed under sanctions.

But on Monday, a U.S. official told RFE/RL that Russia has taken steps to improve the situation.

"We hope we've made sufficient progress in the actions that the Russian government has taken in curbing Iranian proliferation," said David Leavy, a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council. "They've tightened up their act," Leavy said.

U.S. officials cited a series of Russian moves to strengthen export controls. The agreement means that Stepashin will be able to point to at least one commercial benefit from his first visit to Washington as prime minister. On Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund is expected to approve a new loan of $4.5 billion, the first since the ruble crisis of last August 17.

But the launch pact may also have wider implications. In 1993, an agreement on satellite launches was one of the first achievements of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission. The latest cooperation seems to be a sign that mutual interests in trade and technology will continue, despite the many government changes since former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin fell from power last year.

On Sunday in Vladivostok, Stepashin said he was prepared to defend Russia's ties with several nations that the United States has placed under embargo.

"We'll have to explain our position on Iraq, Iran, and North Korea in connection with existing economic restrictions," the prime minister said. He made the comment while preparing to leave for the U.S. visit.

The move to expand launches may signal a U.S. decision to downplay political frictions over Russia's ties to Iran. Although U.S. officials say that Moscow has reduced its nuclear and missile assistance, some experts disagree.

Earlier this month, Kenneth Timmerman, a U.S. expert on Iran, told a congressional panel that Iran is preparing to test a new medium-range missile this summer with the same type of liquid-fuel rocket booster used on Russia's SS-5 missile. Russia has also continued work on Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant.

The limited number of new launches may reflect a U.S. effort to stem the damage from Russia's past proliferation, with a cautious reward to convince Moscow that it should not happen again. The United States faces commercial pressure from its own space industry to increase launch capacity following curbs imposed on satellite cooperation with China.

It is not clear whether the recent inauguration of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has helped to cool the fears over the U.S.-Russian launch business. The United States was previously under pressure from the government of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to punish Russia with space sanctions for its sales to Iran. Washington has also offered to improve its relations with Tehran, but so far, the feelers have been spurned.

Whatever the reasons, the decision to allow further launches suggests that the United States and Moscow are pursuing common interests, despite mutual tensions. The cooperation on satellites may soothe the anger that erupted among Russian space officials after Washington announced its sanctions in January.

Six months ago during a visit to the United States, Anatoly Kisilev, the general director of the Krunichev State Research and Production Space Center, threatened to stop all work on the international space station if Washington refused to expand Russia's launch quota for satellites. It now appears that both the space station and the satellite launches will survive the disputes over Iran.