Belarus, Iran Plan Weapons-Trade Pact

Article excerpt

The president of the former Soviet republic of Belarus is set to conclude a secret agreement with Iran to sell military equipment and spare parts for Iran's tanks and armored vehicles, according to CIA sources.

President Alexander Lukashenko will sign the agreement when he travels to Tehran early next month to meet with senior Iranian leaders, the sources said.

U.S. government officials familiar with the deal said it is the latest sign that Belarus is moving away from democracy and ties with the West and closer to rogue states like Iran.

It also raises new fears among American officials that Belarus will become a conduit for Russian missile and nuclear weapons technology to Iran. The Clinton administration has been trying with little success to stem the flow of Russian missile technology to Iran for the past year.

"There is little distinction between Russia and Belarus, and it's clear Belarus is acting as a Russian proxy in this," a defense official said of the secret military cooperation with Iran.

Mr. Lukashenko has closely associated himself with hard-line Communists and anti-Western elements in Russia.

Belarus concluded a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with Russia in May 1997.

Mr. Lukashenko consolidated authoritarian power under a constitution he signed into law in November 1996. He called the breakup of the Soviet Union a tragedy and declared that his life's mission would be to reassemble the Soviet empire.

According to the CIA sources, the agreement with Iran provides for sales of tank engines and spare parts, and outlines plans to build a tank-repair facility.

The military cooperation also would include transfers of tank-related technology that Iran needs to maintain and upgrade its T-55, T-62 and T-72 tanks.

Both Iranian and Belarussian officials have agreed to conceal the military pact during Mr. Lukashenko's visit to Iran, set for early March. The relationship is to be characterized in public only as involving unspecified friendly ties, said the sources, who indicated that details of the information were supplied by a foreign intelligence service.

The secret dealings are being handled by Belarus' No. 2 diplomat in Tehran, a former military officer the sources identified only by the last name Rybak.

The issue of military cooperation was raised late last year by Belarus' foreign minister, Ivan Antonovich, during talks in Tehran with Iranian Vice President Hasan Habibi and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi.

The two nations are planning to upgrade their diplomatic relations, the sources said.

Belarus has about 1,778 Soviet-design tanks and Iran has about 1,400. Tehran purchased five shipments of T-72s from Poland between 1996 and 1997, according to a classified CIA report produced last year. Further contracts were halted under pressure from the United States. …