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U.S./Russia: Analysts Hope Bush Confronts Putin On Iran Weapons Aid

Despite his condemnation of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" that also includes North Korea and Iraq, U.S. President George W. Bush appears unlikely to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin on Moscow's alleged assistance to Iran's weapons-of-mass-destruction program when they meet next week in Moscow.

Washington, 17 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When historians look back at the presidency of George W. Bush, they will surely count his branding of North Korea, Iraq, and Iran as an "axis of evil" among the most memorable rhetoric of the war on terrorism.

On 29 January, in his debut State of the Union address, Bush -- buoyed by military victory in Afghanistan -- resolutely told Americans that the next phase in the U.S.-led war must not allow those three countries to pursue weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, Bush said, the consequences would be grave.

"I will not wait on events, while dangers gather. I will not stand by, as peril draws closer and closer. The United States of America will not permit the world's most dangerous regimes to threaten us with the world's most destructive weapons," Baskin said.

Bush was later criticized by friends and foes alike for lumping together those three countries into one purported "axis of evil." But in the weeks after his speech, Bush stood by his statement -- and vowed to act upon it when the time came.

But as Bush heads to Moscow next week for a summit with President Vladimir Putin, analysts are wondering whether he will in fact press the Kremlin chief on what the U.S. has long considered a major national-security threat: Russia's alleged assistance to Iran's weapons-of-mass-destruction program.

U.S. officials say that Russia is involved in the transfer of nuclear and missile technology that within a few years will give the Islamic Republic the capability to threaten Washington, as well as neighbors like U.S. ally Israel.

But Russia has long denied any such involvement, arguing its $800 million contract to build a civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Iran, will not -- as the U.S. says -- facilitate Tehran's ability to produce nuclear weapons.

Washington, which also accuses Iran of supporting terrorism and sabotaging the Middle East peace process, has not had diplomatic relations with Tehran since its 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The issue of technology transfers to Iran was highlighted this week when the U.S. put into force economic sanctions against companies and individuals in Moldova and Armenia, which Washington accuses of aiding Tehran's weapons-of-mass-destruction program. U.S. officials say they suspect that those entities could be front companies for Russian organizations.

Despite much-heralded improvements in U.S.-Russian relations -- including the announced signing of an arms-reduction pact at the 23-26 May summit in Moscow and St. Petersburg -- one of the key issues still dividing the former Cold War foes remains Iran.

The gulf in their views on Tehran was underscored in February by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton, who led the U.S. negotiating team on the latest arms agreement with Russia. Speaking to reporters after talks in Moscow, Bolton made this observation: "I did raise our concern about Russian cooperation with the Iranian nuclear-weapons program and the ballistic-missile program. We have a disagreement about the extent of the involvement in those Iranian [nuclear and missile] programs, and we're going to have to work that out. But let me say this: It is very important, as Russia and the United States, and the West generally talk about their mutual security interests, that we all treat the question of nuclear and missile proliferation in the same way."

So far, however, analysts say there are few indications that Washington and Moscow are on the same page with regard to nonproliferation. Analysts also say it is unclear to what extent Bush will raise the thorny issue with Putin at the summit, even if influential voices in Washington -- particularly the pro-Israel lobby -- are reportedly urging that he do so forcefully.

Robert Einhorn is a former senior State Department official and expert on nonproliferation issues. Now a senior adviser at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, Einhorn this week called Russia's assistance to Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs "one of the most contentious issues" between the two countries over the last decade.

Einhorn said that at the previous U.S.-Russia summit at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, the American president did not raise the subject with Putin and that only since his January "axis of evil" speech have administration officials like Bolton begun to bring it up with their Russian counterparts.

Last week, Russian Minister for Atomic Energy Aleksandr Rumyantsev was in Washington for talks with senior U.S. officials, including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham. American officials reportedly stressed the U.S. is ready to take part in programs beneficial to Russia, but only if Moscow ends its work with Tehran.

Einhorn told a Washington roundtable discussion on Monday: "The issue is too complicated to be resolved at the upcoming summit, but it's critical that the [U.S.] president raise this issue directly and firmly with President Putin if this issue is going to be resolved over the next several months."

Apart from the economic benefit of doing business with Tehran, analysts say Russia also sees a strategic advantage in assisting an Islamic country in order deflect some of the criticism of its war in predominantly Muslim Chechnya.

But if the issue is not resolved at next week's summit, the hope among some U.S. lawmakers is that Bush will at least get the ball rolling toward an agreement that will benefit both countries.

A bill currently being debated in both houses of Congress would restructure some $150 million in Russia's outstanding $3.8 billion debt to the U.S. in exchange for Moscow's cooperation on nonproliferation activities.

But Richard Perle, a conservative Pentagon adviser and former senior Defense Department official, said this week he supported even further-reaching debt-reduction measures, including forgiving the $42 billion of mostly Soviet-era debt that Russia owes to several Western countries.

Analysts, however, say it would be difficult for the U.S. to persuade Western European bankers to forgive all that debt.