Russian Arms and Technology Transfers to Iran: Policy Challenges for the United States

By Eisenstadt, Michael | Arms Control Today, March 2001 | Go to article overview

Russian Arms and Technology Transfers to Iran: Policy Challenges for the United States


Eisenstadt, Michael, Arms Control Today


Iran has come to see Russia as a partner in its efforts to break out of its international isolation and as a reliable source of arms and advanced technology for its armed forces.

In the past decade, Russia has become Iran's main source of advanced conventional arms, an alleged supplier of know-how and technology for its ballistic missile and chemical and biological warfare programs, and its sole source of civilian nuclear technology. Despite sustained U.S. efforts to halt these transfers, they continue, raising unsettling questions about Moscow's intentions, the depth of its commitment to arms control, and the future of U.S.-Russian relations. How the United States deals with this challenge could have far-reaching implications for the stability of the Middle East and the fate of the international non-proliferation regime.

Iran has been seeking to enhance its military capabilities for more than a decade now, in an attempt to increase self-reliance, strengthen deterrence, and achieve the status and influence that it believes is its due. Self-reliance in all areas of national life-but particularly in the military sphere-is a fundamental tenet of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Thus, Iran has built up its militaryindustrial base to reduce its reliance on foreign arms suppliers and increase its military potential. Iran also wants to be able to deter potential threats from Iraq, the United States, Israel, and, more recently, Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Afghanistan. Finally, Tehran's efforts to modernize its armed forces and acquire weapons of mass destruction are driven by a desire to bridge the gap between its military weakness and its image of itself as a regional power and the standard bearer of revolutionary Islam. To these ends, Tehran has turned to Russia-the only country that can provide it with arms in the quantity and the quality that it desires.

The security relationship forged by Russia and Iran over the past decade is something of an historical anomaly-the two nations have traditionally viewed each other with suspicion. In the 19th century, imperial Russia dominated Persia, annexing territories that had historically belonged to the Persian empire, and with Great Britain conspired to divide the country into spheres of influence. Soviet policy, though generally cautious, was not completely free of such imperial impulses, but with the onset of the Cold War, relations with Iran improved somewhat. Trade increased, and Iran even bought small quantities of arms from the Soviet Union. However, following Iran's 1979 Islan-dc revolution, relations grew strained. The Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini-who reviled both the Soviet Union and the United States-pursued a foreign policy of "neither East nor West" that put Moscow at arms length. For its part, Moscow feared that Tehran would export its Islamic revolution to the Muslims of the Soviet Union.

In June 1989, within weeks of the Ayatollah Khomeini's death, the then-speaker of Iran's parliament, Ali Akbar Hashemi-- Rafsanjani, visited Moscow, opening a new chapter in relations with the Soviet Union. After pledging non-interference in each other's domestic affairs (allaying Soviet concerns about the export of Tehran's brand of radical Islam to the Muslim Soviet republics), the two sides negotiated a major arms deal and agreements on trade, economic, and scientific-technical cooperation (including the "peaceful use of atomic energy").

In the decade that followed, Moscow and Tehran frequently found themselves on the same side of various issues of common concern. When this was not the case, they nonetheless proved able to work through their differences. Throughout this period, Tehran tread softly in areas of concern to Moscow, repeatedly deferring to Russian sensibilities in the Caucasus and Central Asia. In particular, Iran's restrained response to Moscow's bloody suppression of a Muslim separatist movement in Chechnya underscored, for Russian policy-makers, the relatively benign thrust of Iranian policy in Russia's backyard. …

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