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Russia: Policy On Iran Unlikely To Change, Say Experts

Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a treaty on 24 May to cut their long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds. But their summit was overshadowed by U.S. concerns that Russia is helping Iran -- a state the U.S. accuses of sponsoring terrorism -- amass weapons of mass destruction. But Putin says the cooperation between Iran and Russia is not of a character that would undermine the interests of nonproliferation. There have been suggestions the United States may try to persuade major industrial nations to reduce Russia's Soviet-era debt obligations in return for giving up its assistance to Iran. But experts in Moscow say Russia is not likely to review its relations with Iran, even in return for financial compensation, because such a move would have a damaging effect on Putin's image.

Moscow, 27 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush signed a deal on 24 May to cut their long-range nuclear warheads by two-thirds. President Bush praised the event as historic: "This is an historic and hopeful day for Russia and America. It's an historic day for the world as well. President Putin and I today ended a long chapter of confrontation and opened up an entirely new relationship between our countries."

According to the treaty, the former Cold War foes will reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals to within a range of 1,700 to 2,200 warheads by the year 2012. The two countries currently hold about 6,000 warheads each.

But in a joint press conference after the signing, Bush stressed his concern over the nuclear power plant Russia is building in Iran -- a state the U.S. accuses of sponsoring terrorism. The U.S. president said he and Putin discussed the issue, and said it was important -- for both Russia and the U.S. -- to ensure that Iran did not get hold of weapons of mass destruction. "We spoke very frankly and honestly about the need to make sure that a nontransparent government, run by radical clerics, doesn't get their hands on weapons of mass destruction. It could be harmful to us and harmful to Russia."

But at the same news conference, Putin rejected the idea of any improprieties in his country's relations with Iran: "Russia's cooperation with Iran is not of a character that would undermine the process of non-proliferation [of weapons of mass destruction]. We cooperate in energy matters, and this cooperation is strictly of an economic character."

General Valerii Cheban is an adviser to the Defense Committee of the State Duma, or lower house of parliament. He says Putin should not give in to pressure from the West about suspending cooperation with Iran. Cheban says the accusation that Russia is helping Iran create a weapons program has no relation to reality, and that Russia firmly adheres to its agreement on the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. "Russia's observance of the agreement on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction is not in question. Russia observes [this agreement] in general, and about Iran in particular."

Cheban says that according to international law, every country has the right to protect its own interests and its point of view -- and Russia has many interests in Iran. First of all, he says, Iran is one of Russia's near neighbors: "The Russian Federation has its own interests in Iran. If you look at the map, Iran is closer [to Russia] than the United States of America is. Traditionally, good relations with Iran -- our neighbor -- have always been very important for us. Moreover, by improving our relations with Iran, we can help to positively influence the situation in the Central Asia region."

Cheban says that since the U.S.-led antiterrorist operation began in Afghanistan last autumn, Iran has grown increasingly nervous about its proximity to countries like Iraq -- a potential target in the next stage of the antiterror campaign -- and nuclear-armed India and Pakistan, whose standoff over Kashmir threatens to escalate into war. Moreover, he says the current presence in the Persian Gulf of U.S. and British naval forces taking part in the antiterrorist operation in Afghanistan is another source of tension for Iran. Russia, says Cheban, can play a crucial part by helping to keep the situation in the region calm.

"Analyzing the national interests of the Russian Federation, [we see] that building normal relations with all its neighbors, Iran included, is [Russia's] priority. This, of course, doesn't free Russia from its commitment to the agreement on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Russia will observe this [agreement]. But it would be unreasonable for Russia to follow a common wave [of thinking] about accepting or not accepting a certain government that is also one of its neighbors. It would be more reasonable not to have this kind of tension. The Russian Federation's proximity to countries [like Iran] should be used [by the international community to solve the tensions in the area]."

Ivan Safranchuk is the director of the Moscow office of the Center for Defense Information. He says that the disagreement between Russia and the United States about Iran will not have a strong impact on the countries' overall relations, since -- according to Safranchuk -- it is normal that allies and friends can ask each other "difficult questions." Moreover, he adds, relations between Moscow and Tehran are not at their best, despite continued cooperation on the Bushehr nuclear plant that is at the heart of U.S. concerns about weapons proliferation.

"There have been some changes in Russian-Iranian relations. The issue is that in autumn last year and this year, some Iranian delegations to Moscow had their visas postponed or suspended. Recently there was the summit on the Caspian Sea in Ashgabat, and there were obvious disagreements between the Russian and Iranian delegations about the [division of the] Caspian. All this means that Russia and Iran are not in the best period of their relations. I think that, nevertheless, this does not mean that Russia can completely stop its cooperation with Iran on peaceful atomic energy or military issues."

Safranchuk adds that Russia and the U.S. are not likely to reach a short-term agreement concerning Iran. Safranchuk says there have been suggestions that the United States might try to persuade major industrial nations to reduce Soviet-era debt in return for Russia giving up the Bushehr project. But he says Russia is unlikely to change its position on Iran in exchange for money, since this means the country would lose credibility.

"I think that [Putin] can change his opinion in theory on Iran, but only on the [basis of] principle, not because of money or pressure. Russia cannot just [put its political positions up for sale], because that is a way not to be taken seriously. [Then,] when Russia next tries to find a long-term contract with someone, everyone will have in mind that Russia may [just] sell it in the short term."

For "pragmatic" leader Putin, Safranchuk says, a political reversal on Iran would have catastrophic consequences for his image and credibility, both at home and abroad.