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Russia and Iran: Comrades in arms - 9/11

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Asia Times

October 5, 2001

Russia and Iran: Comrades in arms

By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - For those with cash to spend, Russia has a lot to offer besides crude oil and natural gas. Moscow and Tehran this week signed agreements for further supplies of Russian military equipment to Iran, to be worth US$300-400 million annually over several years.

Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani was due to leave Russia on Thursday after a four-day visit to formalize the arms accord that was outlined during Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's visit to Moscow in March.

On October 2, the defense ministers of Russia and Iran signed a framework agreement on military cooperation. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia would only provide Iran with "defensive" weapons, adding that such sales would not violate international agreements. The agreement is not directed against third countries, Shamkhani said. He also described Iran's relations with Russia as "historical and long-term". This week's meetings took on new significance in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States. Iran and Russia have expressed their willingness to help equip the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces, but both countries are concerned about the consequences of possible US strikes into Afghanistan. Iran has warned the US not to use its airspace for any attacks. "Today our cooperation is becoming more urgent. The situation prompts that," Interfax news agency quoted Shamkhani as saying.

Government officials are yet to divulge details of the upcoming deals, but sources and analysts say that they may include spare parts for Russian-made weapons, new fighter jets, and possibly air defense, ground-to-ground and anti-ship systems. Some Russian media outlets have speculated that Tehran is interested in acquiring long-range S-300 air defense missiles, and medium-range Buk M1 and Tor M1 air defense missiles.

Iranian military officials are also reportedly considering purchasing Sukhoi Su-27 fighter jets with a range of more than 3,000 kilometers, Iskander-E tactical ground-to-ground missiles with a range of nearly 300 kilometers, and 550 BMP-3 armored infantry vehicles.

Iran also would like to buy supersonic Mosquito and Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The Yakhont missiles have a range of 300 kilometers. The Mosquito missiles, manufactured at the Progress plant in Arseniyev, Primorie region, near the border with China, have a range of 120 kilometers. The missiles fly at altitudes below 10 meters and their designers claim that Russia previously sold them to both China and Vietnam. The delivery of the Mosquito missile system to China was a part of larger, $800 million deal to build two Sovremenny-class destroyers for the Chinese navy.

It has been speculated that the missiles could eventually be deployed in a conflict over the Spratly islands. Rich fishing grounds and the potential for gas and oil deposits have caused the Spratly archipelago to be claimed in its entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines. All five parties have occupied certain islands or reefs, and occasional clashes have occurred between Chinese and Vietnamese naval forces.

When it comes to armaments, Russian technology still sells. Apart from China, India has purchased submarines and frigates equipped with anti-ship missile systems.

Russian media outlets have speculated that Iran is keen to purchase anti-ship missile systems in order to control crucial sea routes in the Persian Gulf. However, Russian officials have dismissed these fears. "The arms supply agreement is not going to undermine the regional balance of forces." Ivanov was quoted as saying by the Russian Information Agency.

The latest commitment between Russia and Iran is contrary to a secret memorandum signed in 1995 by then US vice president Al Gore and then prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin which obliged Russia to stop deliveries of weaponry systems to Iran by December 31, 2001, and to refrain from signing any new arms deals with the country.

Prior to the signing of this memorandum, Russia had delivered three Project 877 diesel submarines and eight MiG-29 fighters to Iran and sold a T-72 tank production license as part of a series of deals dating back to the 1980s.

Russian experts say that Iran may become Russia's third biggest arms buyer after China and India. Iran's ambassador to Moscow, Mehdi Safari, said in February that Russia could overall earn up to $7 billion in the next few years by resuming full-scale military cooperation with Iran.

Moreover, Russian military experts indicate that Iran wants to use Russian defense equipment on its 1,000 kilometer border with Afghanistan. This would be used to help Iran stop the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan through its territory and limit the losses of Iranian border guards trying to block the drug trade. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted unidentified sources in the Russian Federal Border Guard Service as saying that Shamkhani had tentatively approved a draft to equip all of Iran's borders with Russian surveillance systems.

On Thursday, Shamkhani visited Russia's second largest city and major defense industry hub, St Petersburg. The Iranian minister was due to visit the Northern Warf shipbuilding plant, notably to inspect the so-called Project 20382 naval vessels, with an estimated price tag of $50 million each.

The Kremlin secured a number of deals when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visited Russia in March, becoming the first Iranian leader in Moscow in 27 years. Khatami met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on March 12 and they signed a cooperation treaty, the first major accord clinched by the two countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

The treaty did not make Russia and Iran strategic partners, but aimed at further strengthening partner-like, neighborly relations. The deal stipulates, among other things, that neither nation would allow its land to be used by "separatists" acting against the other nation.

On October 2, Shamkhani warned against what he described as a policy of double standards in the battle against terrorism. When Russia was targeted by terrorists recently, some countries supported them, he said, arguably referring to the United States.

During his Moscow visit Shamkhani also negotiated with Ivanov on how the oil and gas riches of the Caspian Sea should be shared. They avoided any direct reference to the United States in their comments, but indirectly opposed US policy in the Caspian Sea region.

The Caspian settlement "does not require the presence of non-littoral states", Shamkhani said. In response, Ivanov stated that the five littoral nations "do not need outside intermediaries" to settle their differences.

Russia and Iran will not recognize maritime borders in the Caspian until the sea's legal status is settled. The Caspian Sea is landlocked between Azerbaijan, Iran, Kazakhstan, Russia, and Turkmenistan. Since the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Caspian Sea - as well as the region surrounding it - has became the focus of much international attention due to its huge oil and gas reserves. The Sea, which is 700 miles long, contains six separate hydrocarbon basins, and most of the oil and gas reserves in the Caspian Sea region have not yet been developed yet.

Economic relations between Russia and Iran are experiencing a revival. Annual trade turnover was just $200 million five years ago, while it reached $600 million last year, of which 90 percent comprised Russian exports to Iran.

However, Russia has long come under heavy criticism from the West for its help in building the Bushehr nuclear plant on Iran's Gulf coast. The US claims that the Russian technology could be used to develop nuclear weapons, but Moscow and Tehran argue that the plant will only be used for civilian purposes and will remain under international control.

Moscow has brushed off repeated US demands that it cancels the $800 million 1,000-megawatt light-water nuclear reactor project. The Kremlin has repeatedly argued that it is abiding by international agreements banning the proliferation of nuclear technologies.

Although the West now shares Russia and Iran's opposition to the Taliban's radicalism, it remains to be seen whether an emerging joint stance against international terrorism may silence Western criticism of Russia's arms sales to Iran.

(2001 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)

Further Reading:

F..W.. Magazine || 9/11: The Archive - The 'Lighter' Side of the New World Order?