The World Tribune

U.S. ignored warnings about Russian strategic aid to Iran

By Steve Rodan

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

JERUSALEM -- For nearly two years, Israel urged the United States to get tough with Moscow, relaying intelligence information that Russian companies were transferring technology to Iran's missile and nonconventional weapons program.

The U.S. response, Israeli officials recall, was skepticism. "They thought we were exaggerating," a senior official said.

By the time, U.S. officials changed their minds, officials said, it was too late. Russian companies had accelerated their aid to Iran and approached completion of the development of intermediate-range missiles that could strike the Jewish state. The current assessment is that Iran is on the verge of completing development of one such intermediate-range and hard at work at developing a more advanced model.

Today, Israel has launched a new approach. Failing to wield a large enough stick to stop Russian aid to Iran, Israel has offered a carrot. Israeli leaders are offering the Russian government to be its lobby in Washington and in the West to promote such issues as easing Russian debt to ending NATO's conflict in Kosovo.

"It's a continuation of the carrot and the stick," a senior Israeli official said. "The stick is sanctions, which we initiated. The carrot is efforts to help the Russian economy. Our message is you can get a lot more money by being good than being bad."

The policy has aroused the pique of the Clinton administration and the ire of opposition politicians. The issue was raised by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk in his talks with Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

"I think that we have made it very clear," Indyk said, "and we discussed this with the prime minister today, that when it comes to dealing with the issue of the division of technology and assistance to countries like Iran that the US and Israel must remain in coordination on this."

Israeli officials attribute their shift to White House inaction. They said the Clinton administration, including the Pentagon had refused to take seriously Israeli reports of Russian aid to Iran's missile and nuclear programs.

"It is vital for Israel to maintain good relations with Russia in order to, among other things, prevent phenomena which we perceive as negative," Netanyahu said on Sunday.

By 1997, U.S. officials began to change their minds. The first to be persuaded was the CIA, then the Pentagon. By mid-1998, the State Department agreed that Russian companies were helping Iran's military programs, particularly in the development of the intermediate-range Shihab-3 missile.

Still, the administration continued to oppose legislation by Congress to sanction Russian companies and the government in Moscow. Instead, the White House agreed to sanction 10 companies found to have helped Iran's military programs.

Both Israeli and U.S. officials agree that the sanctions did not make much difference. At that point, officials said, Israel began to consider other options.

Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon said the best response is to demonstrate that Israel can help Moscow with its economic problems. Over the last two years, he has presented a range of proposals to wean Moscow off its dependence on Iranian contracts for missile and nuclear programs.

Some of Sharon's ideas have been adopted. He brought Russia into a deal in which Israel would supply early-warning airborne systems to China. In the arrangement, the Israeli systems were installed in Russia's Il-76 cargo planes.

Sharon also pressed for Israel to buy natural gas and oil from Russia. He offered Russia to be a middleman in Israeli weapons and upgrade contracts with countries that have no relations with Israel.

The foreign minister is also encouraging cooperation of Israeli satellite technology and Russian space launchers. The drive is meant to undercut Western satellite launch services in an intense competition for a growing market.

"Israel has lots of security deals with Russia," said Yehoshua Meiri, a Middle East analyst regarded as close to Sharon. "Russia is a like a straw man in many deals. Dealing with Russia means you know what it is doing with other countries, such as Iran."

Israeli officials said Sharon and Netanyahu are working closely in the effort to draw closer to Moscow. Netanyahu has spoken to the International Monetary Fund's Stanley Fischer on ways to extend Russia $4.8 billion in debt relief. The prime minister has also quietly encouraged Israeli and Jewish private investment in Russia.

Not everybody is pleased with the new approach. Defense sources said the Israeli flirtation with Russia is undercutting efforts in Congress to enact new sanctions legislation. The sources said Moscow is using Israeli goodwill and does not plan to curtail any help to Iran.

Defense Minister Moshe Arens, however, said Israel has not faced U.S. objection to the current effort. "All that is being done with Russia these days is in coordination with the United States and should be done in coordination with the United States," Arens said.

Israeli officials said the government has nothing to lose in its approach. They said Russian officials and parliamentarians have not been intimidated by the threat of U.S. sanctions. Instead, most members of the Duma want a removal of any restrictions from Russian exports to Iran.

Russian diplomats, however, point to some gains in Israel's new policy. Netanyahu's popularity among Russian politicians has skyrocketed, something that has become the talk among Israel's nearly 1 million Russian-speaking citizens and voters.

"We are telling people not to visit Israel during the election campaign," a Russian diplomat said. "But the politicians don't care. They honestly think that a picture of them with Netanyahu will help them in Russian elections this fall."

Tuesday, April 13, 1999

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