- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 9, 2001

Since September 11, Russian President Vladimir Putin has vigorously supported the U.S. war in Afghanistan, made unprecedented overtures to NATO, offered Russian vaccines to fight the U.S. anthrax attacks, closed an intelligence station in Cuba and spent the night at President Bush's ranch.
But on one issue in the rapidly evolving U.S.-Russian relationship, Moscow has shown no signs of give: Iran.
In the face of repeated expressions of concern by the Bush administration, Russia has expanded its military and economic ties to Tehran, despite the fact that U.S. and Israeli intelligence officials believe that Russian aid is crucial to Iran's drive to develop nuclear weapons.
Brenda Shaffer, research director at Harvard's Caspian Studies Program and author of a recent study on Russian-Iranian relations, said the two states share a border and a wide number of strategic concerns, while for the United States, "Iran will always be a secondary relationship."
"For Russia, Iran is like Mexico for us," said Miss Shaffer. "We'd have to offer strong positive incentives to Moscow to change this relationship, and we don't really have them."
Dmitri Simes, president of the Washington-based Nixon Center, said that on issues ranging from oil pipeline routes to Islamic fundamentalism, "Russia sees Iran as a good international citizen."
"Russians genuinely do not accept U.S. assessments of the threat posed by Iran because their experience with Tehran has been very different," he said.
The issue of Russian-Iranian cooperation is expected to resurface when Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrives in Moscow today for talks. U.S. officials told the Reuters news agency earlier this month that they were prepared to impose sanctions on Russia for aiding what Washington believes is an effort by Tehran to develop nuclear weapons.
In particular, U.S. nonproliferation experts have expressed concern that Russia's deal to help build a nuclear reactor at Bandar-e-Bushehr, near the Persian Gulf, would speed Iran's development of nuclear weapons, which could come within the next four to nine years.
Despite conciliatory talk on other issues, Mr. Putin has adamantly rejected American criticisms of his country's dealings with Tehran and has denied the nuclear project could be used for military purposes.
"It is a legend which has nothing to do with reality," the Russian president told ABC News on the eve of his trip to the United States last month.
"We are selling conventional weapons to Iran," he contended. "We have never sold anything to Iran that would help Iran develop missiles or weapons of mass destruction."
Despite signs of a slight thaw in relations since the September 11 attacks, Washington still lists Iran as a state sponsor of terrorism, and direct contacts between the two governments have been minimal since the 1979 Iranian revolution and the seizure by Islamic militants of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran.
By contrast, relations between Tehran and Moscow have been marked by a series of milestones since Russia in December 2000 announced it was pulling out of a confidential agreement it had made with the Clinton administration five years earlier not to sell conventional weapons to Iran.
Since then, Russia and Iran have signed a military cooperation pact that could result in some $300 million in exports for Russia's cash-strapped defense industry. Russian newspapers reported last month that Tehran has agreed to buy 30 transport helicopters that can be used for military missions.
The deals are important to both countries, despite the tensions they bring with Washington.
Tehran is still trying to rebuild its military forces after the huge losses of the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Russia badly needs the revenues to pay for the modernization of its own armed forces.
Unlike the military and intelligence outposts Mr. Putin recently closed in Cuba and Vietnam, Mr. Simes noted, "Iran means real money to Russia."
"We're asking the Russians to sacrifice a very beneficial relationship financially to meet a threat they don't see," he said.
Iran and Russia have both backed the Northern Alliance in the struggle for power in Afghanistan, and the two share suspicions of Pakistan's role in the region.
In addition, the two have taken the lead in trying to fashion a compromise over the division of the water, oil and gas resources of the Caspian Sea, and Iran shares Russian suspicions of a planned U.S.-backed pipeline from Azerbaijan to Turkey designed to bypass both countries.

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