U.S. ignored warnings about Russian strategic aid to Iran
By Steve Rodan
SPECIAL TO WORLD TRIBUNE.COM
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
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
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
"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
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
Both Israeli and U.S. officials agree that the sanctions did not make
much difference. At that point, officials said, Israel began to consider
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
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
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
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.
honestly think that a picture of them with Netanyahu will help them in
Russian elections this fall."
Tuesday, April 13, 1999