The U.S. Congress is bringing public attention to a little-known, five-year-old agreement between Vice President Al Gore and former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin. The agreement essentially said Washington would ignore Russian arms sales to Iran. RFE/RL correspondent Andrew F. Tully reports that the issue has political as well as national-security implications.
Washington, 26 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- America's relations with Russia are coming under scrutiny in the U.S. Congress. At issue are news reports that Vice President Al Gore signed a secret deal in 1995 with Viktor Chernomyrdin -- then Russia's prime minister -- agreeing to Moscow's arms sales to Iran.
Under the agreement, the U.S. would not impose economic sanctions on Russia if it completed arms sales that already had been contracted with Iran -- as long as the transactions were complete by December 31, 1999.
Under American law, Washington must bring sanctions against any country that sells weapons to Iran if the president determines that the sale would destabilize the region. That law was co-sponsored in the Senate by Gore himself -- then a Senator (D-Tennessee).
On Wednesday, two subcommittees of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a joint hearing to discover whether the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement violated the very law that Gore had sponsored. They also wanted to determine whether the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton violated other laws by not informing Congress of the details of the pact.
All congressional committees are led by members of the Republican Party, which has a majority. Gore and Clinton are members of the Democratic Party. Democrats say the hearings are politically motivated, coming less than two weeks before the election in which Gore is running for president.
Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) -- chairman of the Subcommittee on European Affairs -- opened Wednesday's hearing by expressing concern about the ultimate effect of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement.
"This agreement may reportedly have limited our response to Russia's arms sales to Iran -- a country which is a significant sponsor of international terrorism directed against the West and its allies."
But Senator Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) -- the Democratic Party's senior member on the subcommittee -- said it was important for the Clinton administration to work with Russia -- in secret, if necessary -- to limit Iran's access to advanced weapons. In fact, Biden said, the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement apparently did just that at a time when Moscow had financial incentives to increase such sales.
"We can't control arms sales to areas of concern if we don't include Russia in that [arms-control] regime. After all, Russia has lots of weapons to sell, and they need the money."
Biden quoted from a report by a national security expert saying the weapons that Iran bought from Russia have -- as he put it -- "little military meaning." The assessment was made by Anthony Cordesman, a leading adviser to Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), the other sponsor of law requiring sanctions for countries selling weapons to Iran. McCain is a political opponent of Gore.
The first witness at Wednesday's hearing was John Barker, a senior official of the State Department specializing in restricting the proliferation of weapons. He said the substance of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement was communicated to Congress and to the American people. But he said some details were withheld.
"Of course, certain sensitive documents were classified and were closely held in the executive branch [the Clinton administration] -- that is, before they were published in the newspaper. This is the common practice for all administrations on very sensitive diplomatic negotiations. But the thrust of these documents was widely telegraphed [disclosed indirectly] to both the Congress and the American people."
Following Barker was Joseph DeThomas, another State Department official who told the committee that he has worked to restrict arms-proliferation under both Democratic and Republican presidents. He supported Barker's argument that Congress had been lawfully notified about the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, and that only very sensitive details were withheld.
Despite this sensitivity, DeThomas complained, photographs of these documents recently appeared in American newspapers. And he told the Senators that they should be careful about how fiercely they attack the Clinton administration over the issue. This, he said, would only serve the interests of Iranian and of anti-Western forces in Russia.
"The arrangements discussed here today are manifestly in the interests of the United States, and of the effort to halt proliferation. But they have powerful opponents in Moscow. A partisan brawl that drags legitimately classified material into the newspapers as photo insets can only benefit Iran and those forces in Moscow most hostile to our objectives."
Smith -- the chairman of the hearing -- said the foreign-policy implications of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement go far beyond stability in Iran and America's relations with Russia.
"This sort of deal-making must reawaken fears among the newly free states of Central Europe, the Caucasus, and Central Asia that they may become once again the objects of secret agreements between great powers. It is hardly likely to increase their confidence in the United States."
The Senate hearings -- and similar hearings in the lower house of Congress, the House of Representatives -- come at a politically awkward time for Gore, who is campaigning for president. The election is on November 7.
Gore has portrayed himself during the campaign as having far superior credentials in foreign affairs than his opponent, Republican George W. Bush, the governor of the western state of Texas.
Gore's supporters say the scrutiny of his agreement with Chernomyrdin is designed to undermine the vice president's foreign-policy qualifications. Republicans respond that their concern is not politically motivated. In fact, 11 former senior officials in the American government -- including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski -- issued a letter saying the agreement could jeopardize the security of the U.S. and its allies.