- The Washington Times - Monday, March 26, 2001

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates Iran's latest arms deal with Russia, underpinned by a surge in its oil revenue, has troubling implications for its neighbors, almost all of whom are embroiled in quarrels with Tehran that could turn violent.

Moscow and Tehran insist the deal is for defensive purposes only, but the United States, itself a big weapons supplier to the region, has expressed alarm.

News of the latest agreement came during a four-day visit to Moscow this month by Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Russia agreed to supply $7 billion worth of weapons over the next few years and to complete Iran's only nuclear reactor by 2003.

Iran covets Russia's missile technology and its Su-25 warplanes that could narrow the gap with its U.S.-supplied Gulf Arab neighbors. In a single deal last year, the tiny United Arab Emirates placed a $6.4 billion deal with the United States for 80 F-16 fighter planes.

A Russian official visiting Washington recently didn't mention warplanes when asked about the Iran arms deal. "All defensive," insisted Sergei Ivanov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's national security adviser. "Personnel carriers, tanks, anti-air missiles, which are very legitimate."

But Russia already has helped Iran tip the regional naval balance by selling it three Kilo-class submarines, the only subs owned by a Gulf country, and between 1989 and 1999 it supplied a reported $5 billion worth of weapons to Iran, the bulk of Tehran's recent purchases.

Iran's military ambitions are not new. They can now be realized, however, because of a windfall from oil revenues.

Russia makes no secret of its need for big customers to prop up its flagging defense industries. By engaging with Iran, a major and influential player in the region, Moscow also retains powerful influence in the Gulf and beyond.

But weapons sales to Iran raise concern because the Islamic Republic is less stable now than at any time since it rose out of the 1979 revolution.

Religious hard-liners who still believe in holy war and exporting the revolution are waging a power struggle with pro-Khatami reformists.

Despite a thaw with Iraq, neither country can forget their devastating 1980-88 war.

Across the Gulf, Iran is locked in a territorial dispute with the Emirates.

Ties with Turkey are strained over Tehran's support for rebel Kurds and Ankara's military ties with Israel, Iran's arch foe.

In 1998, Iran came close to war with Afghanistan's Taliban rulers following the killing of seven Iranian diplomats and an Iranian journalist by renegade Taliban troops.

And then there's the Middle East conflict. Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said in December that his country would retaliate in an "astounding and unexpected" way if Israel attacked Syria or Lebanon.

Iran has built and tested a number of missiles. Its latest, the Shahab-3, has a range of 800 miles and can reach Israel or U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia.

Israeli leaders repeatedly warn that Iran is close to developing a nuclear weapon, despite denials by Tehran. Ignoring U.S. concerns, Russia is building Iran's only nuclear reactor at a power plant in the city of Bushehr.

Both countries insist the technology cannot be used to make bombs, and point out that Israel too is reported to have nuclear warheads, plus the missiles to deliver them.

Russia has said Iran agreed to sign up for a second nuclear reactor during Mr. Khatami's visit.

Moscow disregarded a 1995 agreement with Washington that called for a ban on more arms sales to Iran.

"It is not wise to invest in regimes that do not follow international standards of behavior," Secretary of State Colin Powell said March 14, criticizing the latest arms deal with Iran. The Russians, he said, should not be "investing in weapons sales in countries such as Iran which have no future."

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