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Russia: Moscow Reevaluates Its Iranian Ties To Please U.S.

Boston, 5 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- As the U.S. Congress threatens to cut Russian aid, Moscow appears to be growing more careful about its contacts with Iran.

In a series of recent meetings between Russian and Iranian officials, both sides have stressed cooperation but have avoided inflammatory comments about arms proliferation or the Bushehr nuclear power plant.

The new tone in official statements comes as the Congress considers measures that would slash aid to Russia unless it curbs its technology transfers to Iran. A foreign aid bill passed Tuesday by the U.S. House of Representatives would withhold half of all assistance to Russia until President Bill Clinton certifies that Moscow has stopped helping Iran with its nuclear and missile programs.

House committees are also scheduled to act this week on a bill that would sanction any foreign entity found to be selling items that could be used in Iranian weapons programs.

Iran has repeatedly denied that it has a nuclear arms program and has said that its missiles are only for defensive purposes. Russia has also denied helping Iran, but the U.S. foreign aid bill makes no distinction between Iranian weapons and Russia's work on the nuclear reactors at Bushehr. U.S. funds for the joint space station could also be withheld.

Faced with the threats of lost aid, Russia appears to be pursuing conciliation rather than defiance. At the same time, it has sought to assure Iran of its continued engagement with a flurry of official meetings since late last month.

Some of the talks coincided with the Washington visit of Prime Minister Sergei Stepashin, who faced pressure during his trip about Russia's relations with Iran. Moscow's parallel meetings with Iran seemed to be aimed at sending the message that bilateral ties will not be sacrificed, but they will also not pose a security risk.

On Wednesday July 28, First Deputy Prime Minister Nikolai Aksyonenko said at a Moscow press conference with Mines and Metal Minister Eshaq Jahangiri that Russia and Iran were reviewing agreements valued at 8,000 million dollars. The official Iranian report made no mention of Bushehr, despite earlier Russian promises to expand on the 800 million-dollar project with additional reactors. Bilateral ties were publicly focused on purely commercial issues, like upgrading the Isfahan steel mill.

On the previous day, Iranian and Russian foreign ministry officials also met in Moscow to discuss export controls and proliferation issues. The message to be drawn from the official statement is that the two countries are just as concerned as the United States about the issue of arms control.

Although the meeting took place on the same day as the Stepashin visit to Washington, there was none of the usual defiance about weapons or denials of arms trade. Instead, both sides were bent on portraying the Russian-Iranian relationship as a force for regional peace and security.

On Monday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin issued another statement in Moscow, calling cooperation with Iran the cornerstone of the Kremlin's foreign policy. While notably short on specifics, Karasin told Iranian Ambassador Mehdi Safari that Moscow wants to maintain a high frequency of contacts and will host another series of official visits. There was still no mention of Bushehr in the official Iranian reports.

The emphasis on what diplomats call "soft" cooperation appears to be a consolation for Iran because no harder deals have been reached, now that Russia is facing the threat of a cut in U.S. aid.

Other recent meetings between Russia and Iran have also taken the soft line. Last week, the two sides discussed the possible opening of an Iranian rail link to Moscow through Baku. By giving frequent publicity to potential and futuristic projects, Tehran may be creating a smokescreen for its disappointment over setbacks with Moscow. The Iranian press denounced Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak for raising the issue of arms transfers Monday during his visit to Moscow, although the reminder and the Russian response both seemed remarkably mild.

On a more measured note, Iran has recently called attention to its development of satellites and possible cooperation with Russia on mapping from space to detect land mines. While some U.S. experts have warned of a pending Iranian missile test with Russian help, Iranian officials have deflected the criticism and appear to be suggesting that programs be only for peaceful pursuits.

President Clinton has tried to discourage new sanctions and has threatened to veto the entire foreign aid bill because of other congressional cuts. But Russia may also lean temporarily toward cooperation because of indirect U.S. aid.

U.S. support has been needed twice in the past week, both for the resumption of lending by the International Monetary Fund and the debt rescheduling by the Paris Group of official creditors. Russia may now find it harder than ever to back Iranian projects, at least for now, if the United States does not approve.