- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2006

Should it be a criminal offense not to sell nuclear-weapons delivery equipment to Iran? It is in Moldova, a country receiving financial aid and political support from the United States.

The Soviet collapse left Moldova with a squadron of MiG-29 aircraft, most of a type reserved for the Soviet Air Force and never sold even to Warsaw Pact allies and many with “dual capable” configuration to deliver tactical nuclear weapons. Moldova is the poorest country in Europe, with living standards below Albania’s, and could not even afford fuel for the planes.

In early 1997 a shady figure in the global weapons black market contacted a new Moldovan government with a tentative offer to buy the MiGs on behalf of a third party, since publicly identified as Iran. The sum of $95 million was bandied about, but no real money was ever put on the table. The reason is that the United States moved swiftly to stop the deal.

I was the official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who went to Moldova to deal directly with the new defense minister, Valeriu Pasat. He and the new president, Petru Lucinschi, quickly understood that selling the planes to a rogue state would trigger crippling sanctions from the United States and alienate one of the few Western governments supporting their country. They also understood that the supposed $95 million was phantom money, and not a tangible offer.

The United States wanted to get these high-performance weapons permanently off the international arms market. We pursued several options before deciding on an offer designed to meet the two countries’ very different goals. The Moldovan government desperately needed money for social programs. Washington did not seek the MiGs to add to our forces or for operational purposes, but to guarantee their non use. I returned to Moldova with a generous proposal to buy the MiGs. Mr. Pasat was very difficult and prolonged the negotiations for months. A deal for 21 of the planes was finally worked out with Mr. Lucinschi. Mr. Pasat was, if anything, an obstacle in the transaction.

Since 1991 Moldova has had a Communist Party government. Mr. Pasat is an active member of an opposition party, “Democratic Moldova”, and the local representative of the Russian Unified Energy System electricity monopoly. Last year he was arrested and held in secret without charges for two months. He was then tried by a secret court on charges of defrauding his country by selling the MiGs to Washington for less than what the Iranians supposedly would have paid. In January Mr. Pasat was sentenced to 10 years in a hard-labor penal colony.

The former U.S. ambassador to Moldova during the MiG deal and I prepared detailed legal depositions on behalf of Mr. Pasat, cleared by the State Department and Pentagon, which documented the facts of the transaction. Our depositions were prohibited as evidence by the Moldovan authorities.

The case against Mr. Pasat is that he committed malfeasance by not selling the MiGs to Iran and that he engaged in a conspiracy with the Pentagon to swindle his own country. These charges are entirely bogus. This Soviet-style political trial was in reality designed to squelch political opposition.

I have no connection with Mr. Pasat and do not even like the man. He is probably no better than most of the Moldovan political elite, which has served their country very poorly. However, it is a civic duty to come forward with evidence in a criminal case, especially in such a travesty of justice as this.

In Europe some parliamentarians have started asking tough questions about the Pasat case. Members of Congress should do the same, especially as the accusations against Mr. Pasat are also a smear campaign against the United States. In addition, millions of taxpayer dollars are involved, both in the MiG deal and in ongoing assistance programs for Moldova. Finally, there is the question whether the United States really supports the development of rule of law in former Soviet states as we so often proclaim.

Congress should wake up to the fact that a swindle is indeed underway between the United States and Moldova, but we are the ones being taken.

Wayne Merry, a former State Department and Pentagon official and, is a senior associate at the American Foreign Policy Council.

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