U.S. ties to Russia may fray over Iran

Bush expected to urge Putin to stop exports of weapons technology

May 23, 2002|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - President Bush arrives in Moscow today to highlight his ever-closer ties to President Vladimir V. Putin, but he will be prepared to raise a serious problem: Russia's continued sale of nuclear and missile technology to Iran.

U.S. intelligence officials say Russia's help might be pushing Iran closer to its goal of acquiring nuclear weapons and the missiles to carry them. A nuclear-armed Iran could pose a major threat to Israel and other U.S. allies in the Middle East, as well as to U.S. forces in the region and in Central Asia.

Russia also is helping Iran develop a long-range missile that could reach the United States or Europe, the officials say, and is transferring sophisticated conventional arms.

"Some of the things the Iranians are trying to acquire could only be aimed at American forces," Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, said last week.

After more than five years of American complaints to Russia and the sharing of U.S. intelligence on Iran, the Bush administration is considering ways to increase the pressure. Officials say the administration won't rule out imposing costly economic penalties if Russia fails to halt the exports, although Washington is not ready to do so.

But Bush is certain to raise the issue in his meetings with Putin. "The president is very concerned about it," a White House official said.

Earlier this month in Iceland, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell failed to get a commitment to curb the practice from his Russian counterpart, Igor S. Ivanov. Russia, in its public statements, backs Tehran's claim that the purpose of Iran's nuclear program is to generate electricity, not weapons, and says its technology transfers won't threaten other countries.

"We have a disagreement," Powell said this month. "We have given them information, obviously not everything that we have, but enough to - in our view anyway - persuade them that there is a problem."

"They do not deny that they are selling things to Iran, but they tell us that they don't believe they are selling anything that individually or together should cause us to have the kind of concern that we do. But we do have that concern, and it will be an item of continuing discussion," Powell said.

Regional specialists say Iran's drive to acquire more weapons of mass destruction - Iran is known to have chemical weapons - stems from its 1980-1988 war with Iraq, when Baghdad demonstrated that it had superior missiles. Unable to obtain supplies from Europe, Iran turned to the Soviet Union, China and North Korea after the war.

Iran and the Soviets agreed to collaborate on the "peaceful use of nuclear energy" in 1989. Since the mid-1990s, Russia has been helping Iran build a nuclear reactor near Bushehr, 250 miles south of Tehran on the Persian Gulf coast, and has announced plans for a second one.

Because Iran has access to abundant energy with its large oil and gas deposits, analysts have long suspected that the purpose of Iran's nuclear program is to acquire the know-how and the material to build nuclear weapons. Officials suggest that Russia's nuclear cooperation may extend beyond the work at Bushehr.

"Russia continues to supply significant assistance on nearly all aspects of Tehran's nuclear program," CIA Director George J. Tenet told Congress earlier this year. Iran will be able to produce enough fuel for a nuclear weapon by late this decade and could produce one much faster with an outside supplier, he said. Israel's defense minister has said Iran is five years away from having a nuclear weapon.

Russia, meanwhile, has helped Iran develop its Shahab-3 missile, which is now in the late stage of development and has a range of about 800 miles - sufficient to reach Israel - and a new intercontinental ballistic missile that Tenet says could be deployed by 2015 and pose a direct threat to the United States.

When Boris N. Yeltsin was president of Russia, cooperation with Iran was viewed by some as a result of a breakdown of central control over Russia's military-industrial complex, a vast employer that includes a number of institutions and quasi-private companies.

Russia was desperately short of money at the time. Its industrial base was shrinking, and weapons and technology exports offered a lucrative source of hard currency and a way to prevent its experts from leaving.

But under Putin, that explanation for Russia's role seems less plausible. Russia's economy and oil-export revenues are growing. Putin has shown that he can override strong pressure from Russia's military establishment. Further, he has given every indication that he wants to bind Russia to the West.

"It's very difficult to fathom," said Leon S. Fuerth, who tried to persuade Russia to halt its cooperation with Iran during the Clinton administration, when he was national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore.

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