- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

North Korean leader Kim Jong-il yesterday began a four-day Russian visit that was to be capped by a summit with President Vladimir Putin, the latest sign of Russia's willingness to expand political and economic relations with the three nations that President Bush dubbed the "axis of evil."

Aside from Mr. Kim's visit, senior officials from the governments of Iraq and Iran, including Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri, are set to meet top Russian officials in Moscow in the coming days, in both cases to flesh out recently announced agreements calling for new cooperation in such fields as trade, investment and nuclear power.

Despite the celebrated rapprochement and personal chemistry between Mr. Putin and Mr. Bush since the September 11 attacks, Russia shows no signs of giving up long-standing and lucrative contacts with regimes such as Iran and Iraq, said Ariel Cohen, a foreign policy specialist at the Heritage Foundation.

"Partly, this is a nostalgia among certain Russian elites for the old Soviet role as a global power," said Mr. Cohen, who stressed that Russia's relations with each of the three countries brought different challenges and opportunities.

"And partly this is the fact that some very powerful economic players in and out of the Russian government aren't prepared to pass up some big money-making opportunities, no matter what the U.S. might think," he added.

Russia's nuclear power ministry late last month stunned U.S. policy-makers by announcing a 10-year nuclear cooperation deal with Tehran, despite long-standing U.S. opposition to Russia's construction of a nuclear power plant near the Iranian port town of Bushehr.

Iraq over the weekend released details of a 10-year economic cooperation pact with Russia that could be signed as early as next month. The accord, which Baghdad said could be worth $40 billion or more in trade, comes even as the Bush administration wrestles publicly with the question of how to bring down the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Mr. Bush labeled Iran, Iraq and North Korea an "axis of evil" in his State of the Union address in January, adding in a speech to Virginia Military Institute cadets in April: "The world must confront them. Nations must choose: They are with us or with the terrorists."

But Russia has made little secret of its opposition to a unilateral U.S. strike against Iraq, and has refused to abandon the Bushehr project and the estimated 20,000 Russian jobs connected to it despite repeated criticism from Washington.

Paul Saunders, director of the Nixon Center's Program on U.S.-Russian Relations, said Moscow's recent diplomacy with Iran reflected Russia's very different perspective of the regime in Tehran.

"Unlike in the United States, most officials in Moscow view Iran as a pretty reliable partner on interests that matter the most," he said.

Iran and Russia both aided the Afghan Northern Alliance in its battle with the Taliban, and Iran has refrained from stirring up Islamic fundamentalist groups along Russia's Central Asian flank or in Chechnya. Iran also buys Russian nuclear reactors and arms, giving it two powerful allies at the top levels of the Russian government.

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