Russia's Preferred Customer
Review & Outlook
The Wall Street Journal - February 26, 1997

Earlier this month Russia denied that it had sold long-range missiles and missile manufacturing technology to Iran. Yet it's getting increasingly difficult to give Moscow the benefit of the doubt these days.

The latest Russian arms-sale scandal comes to light courtesy of Israeli intelligence. According to recent reports in Defense News and the Los Angeles Times, Israel has turned over evidence to the U.S. that Russian defense firms have sold Iran a few SS-4 Sandal or SS-23 missiles, along with the technology, components and know-how to develop its own missile-making industry. The reports were concrete enough that U.S. Vice President Al Gore raised the issue in talks with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin when they met in Washington earlier this month. What makes these alleged sales significant is that the Russian missiles have a range of 1,200 to 1,300 kilometers, giving Iran a long-range capability it has long sought.

In Feb. 6 testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, acting CIA director George Tenet, confirmed the Iranian program. Iran "is building its capabilities to produce and deliver weapons of mass destruction," he said. "In less than 10 years, [Iran] probably will have longer-range missiles that will enable it to target most of Saudi Arabia and Israel." Shortly after the Los Angeles Times and Defense News stories broke, Russia issued the usual denials.

Given that the one remaining economic pillar from the Soviet Union is a massive arms-making capability, it's not surprising that Russia is relying heavily on arms sales for hard currency.

"No contracts on selling such know-how to Iran have been signed at a state level," Tatyana Samolis, a spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service, told the Interfax news agency. "Some Russian defense-complex experts, living on paltry salaries, might have made such a deal without the state agencies' permission," Konstantin Makiyenko of the Center for Russian Political Studies told the AP.

This isn't the first time Russian arms sales have come into question nor is it the first time Russia has done nothing to discourage them. Russia's customer list looks like a Who's Who of international terrorism, including Iran, Syria and--before the U.N. embargo--Iraq, to name just a few. Worse, this isn't the first time Russia has been chastised for sales to Iran.

In addition to the three Kilo-class diesel submarines Russia has sold to Iran (the last of which was delivered in late January), Russia recently boasted that its arms sales to Iran have reached $1 billion. "Iran has never been seriously oriented at any country but Russia" in buying arms, said Mikhail Timkin, first deputy director of Russia's Rosvooruzhenie state arms exporting company. "We have an agreement on military-technological cooperation with Iran and we are working on it very seriously," Mr. Timkin told the Interfax news agency.

He also hinted that Russia might not honor its pledge to the U.S. to stop selling arms to Iran after 1999. "Let us agree that the year 1999 will come and we will see," he said. "The fact is that Russian officials make promises and then turn around and do whatever it takes to earn the hard currency," Henry Sokolski, director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, told Defense News. "And whether we're talking about ballistic missiles or nuclear reactors, these sales are going to continue unless the White House gets serious."

Given that the one remaining economic pillar from the Soviet Union is a massive arms-making capability, it's not surprising that Russia is relying heavily on arms sales for hard currency. But if Russia wants to convince NATO and the rest of the world that it's no longer a threat, it could start by not only changing its customer list, but by coming clean on what it's selling to whom, starting with Iran.

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