US needs a plan to halt Russia's sale of nuclear arms to Iran
Op-Ed, Boston Globe
March 23, 2001
Author: Brenda Shaffer, Former Research Fellow, International Security Program, 1999–2007; Former Research Director, Caspian Studies Program, 2000–2005; Former Research Director, Caspian Studies Project, 2005–2007
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: Caspian Studies
DURING IRANIAN PRESIDENT MOHAMMAD KHATAMI'S VISIT TO RUSSIA LAST WEEK, HE AND RUSSIAN PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN ISSUED A NUMBER OF STATEMENTS DECLARING RENEWED COMMITMENTS TO EXTENSIVE RUSSIAN ARMS SALES TO IRAN AND PROVISION OF NUCLEAR REACTORS. THE RESULTS SIGNIFY THAT THE UNITED STATES MUST DESIGN A NEW POLICY IN ORDER TO THWART IRANIAN EFFORTS TO ACQUIRE WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION.
The visit was one of many since the November 2000 announcement that Moscow will cancel its commitment to the United States not to conclude new arms agreements with Iran (the Gore-Chernomyrdin Agreement). Moreover, Russian officials announced in January that Moscow has begun construction of a second civil nuclear reactor in Iran. With the termination of Russia's commitment not to conclude new arms agreements, and Iran's increased ability to pay for arms due to recent high oil prices and revenues, there will probably be a significant increase in the extent of arms sales between the two countries this year. The Clinton administration tried to thwart Russian-Iranian military cooperation, which achieved only limited results. What can the Bush administration do differently in order to succeed in this endeavor? In order to form a policy that will minimize Russian military cooperation with Iran, Washington should recognize that Russia and Iran enjoy strong relations that they term strategic. They share a number of compatible interests in several regional zones, including Central Asia, the Caucasus, Afghanistan, and the Middle East, and a common desire to combat what they term an emerging unipolar international system, meaning US hegemony. Moreover, Russia and Iran view their mutual relations as an important component of their national security. Moscow's vulnerability in Chechnya is pivotal to understanding its commitment to cooperation with Iran in a variety of fields, including military and nuclear cooperation. Overall, official Iranian statements and the Iranian media have been quite mild in their criticism of Russia in the Chechen wars, considering the Muslim background of the Chechen rebels. While serving as chair of the Islamic Conference Organization, Tehran ensured that Chechnya stayed off the agenda of many Islamic forums. The Iranian criticisms of Russia were confined to the rhetorical level and the concrete cooperation between Moscow and Tehran was never interrupted by disagreements over Chechnya. Iran's prevention of a Muslim backlash against Russia over the Chechen issue was rewarded by Moscow with public reaffirmation of its commitment to supply Tehran with its strongly sought-after civil nuclear reactors. Moscow will not jeopardize its relations with Iran for short-term material incentives or out of fear of US condemnation, nor is it likely that the United States will convince Russia to drop its overall strategic cooperation with Iran. However, the United States can be successful in averting specific Russian transfers of materials, technology, and equipment most directly applicable to weapons of mass destruction. Hence, Washington should focus its efforts on the most disturbing elements of Russia's activities with Iran. Specifically, the United States should drop its demands for cessation of conventional arms sales to Iran, which are less of a threat to US interests and those of its allies in the region than weapons of mass destruction or missiles. By boosting Iran's sense of security, sales of conventional arms may cause it to feel less motivated to pursue its weapons of mass destruction programs. Furthermore, the United States has successfully focused on the proliferation activities of specific plants and institutes in Russia. Moscow has not been seduced by material incentives due to the strategic nature of its relations with Iran, but specific plants and institutes are deterred from action by economic punishments and enticed by financial offers from the United States. At the same time, the United States should continue to pursue with vigor a stoppage of transfers to Iran of items that could directly advance Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the United States should pursue limited cooperation with Tehran and Moscow in areas where their security interests overlap, such as Afghanistan, in order to establish direct tracks of dialogue in the security field. The United States should recognize the realpolitik nature of the relationship between Iran and Russia, accepting the strategic incentives behind their warming relations. But it should focus very specifically, and with vigor, on preventing sales of materials that could be used to create weapons of mass destruction.
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