Russia-Iran Ties Remain Issue at Gore-Chernomyrdin Meeting

Arms Control Today, September 1997 | Go to article overview

Russia-Iran Ties Remain Issue at Gore-Chernomyrdin Meeting


THE CLINTON administration's ongoing campaign to convince Russia to sever its civil nuclear ties with Iran was rebuffed once again by Moscow during the latest session of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission September 22-23. Russian officials also rejected, at least publicly, continuing U.S. and Israeli claims that Iran's ballistic missile programs are advancing with the help of illicit Russian technology transfers, although Moscow has agreed to continue a high-profile joint investigation into the alleged transfers that utilizes sensitive U.S. intelligence.

The administration is under increasing pressure from congressional critics to adopt a tougher stance toward Moscow for its continuing nuclear relationship with Tehran and its inability, or unwillingness, to control missile-related exports by the country's vast military-industrial complex. On September 30, a bipartisan group of nearly 100 senators and representatives sent a letter to President Clinton stating that the Russian transfers pose "a direct threat to U.S. security," and that Congress is "moving to mandate a cutoff of assistance to Russia if these dangerous activities do not cease." The letter was drafted by Senator Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Representative Jane Harman (D-CA).

In 1995, Russia signed a $800 million contract with Iran to complete the construction of a 1,000-megawatt (electric) lightwater reactor at the Bushehr nuclear complex on the Persian Gulf coast, where the German company Seimens had suspended work on two reactors following the 1979 revolution. Iran, a signatory of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, reportedly has already paid Russia $80 million for the project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2001. Installation work at the reactor site may begin in mid-1998.

Despite the fact the facility will be under safeguards, the United States has long pressed the Yeltsin administration to pull out of the Bushehr project, arguing that any support for Iran's civil nuclear power program will indirectly assist Tehran's covert drive to acquire nuclear weapons. During their meeting in Moscow, Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the commission's co-chairmen, held extensive discussions on the Bushehr project but Moscow again refused to give ground.

The latest controversy involving alleged Russian missile-related transfers emerged in January, when the White House was informed of an Israeli intelligence report identifying several Russian entities that had aided Iranian programs aimed at developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Since the Israeli intelligence report first surfaced, Russian officials have repeatedly denied claims that Russia is assisting Iran's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Gore raised the issue of Russian missile-related transfers at the previous Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission meeting in February, as did Clinton during his March summit with Yeltsin in Helsinki.

In Moscow, Gore and Chernomyrdin were briefed by Frank Wisner, the president's special envoy on the missile issue and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and India, who is heading the joint investigation, which was launched in August, along with Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency. Interestingly, Koptev was identified in the Israeli intelligence report as one of only two senior Russian officials directly linked to Iran's missile programs. Wisner and Koptev are scheduled to meet again in early November.

Following his meeting with Chernomyrdin, Gore said, "[O]ne of the new lessons of this report [by Wisner and Koptev] is that it is obvious that there is a vigorous effort by Iran to obtain the technologies that it needs to build a ballistic missile and to build nuclear weapons. …

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