Central Asia

Russia warns of Iraqi fallout
By Sergei Blagov

MOSCOW - Against a backdrop of raging war on Iraq, Moscow warns that the other "axis of evil" states, North Korea and Iran, might find the temptation of using weapons of mass destruction even more irresistible. In both cases, the Russians are well positioned to come up with such warnings.

The war against Iraq is likely to entail faster development of nuclear weapons in Iran and North Korea, warns Leonid Shebarshin, former head of Russia's foreign intelligence, and Iran may well become Washington's next target, he says.

Furthermore, not only retired generals but also Russia's acting officials make similar warnings. For instance, on March 27, Deputy Foreign Minister Yuri Fedotov told journalists in Moscow that the US policy of "regime change" may cause WMD proliferation. "Some nations may view themselves in relative safety only when possessing these weapons," he said.

Even before the Iraqi war started, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov had warned that the danger in the nuclear crisis over North Korea could be much greater than the Iraq situation. In the wake of the US-led war on Iraq, Pyongyang has claimed that it could be next. On March 29, North Korea's Foreign Ministry accused the US of outrageous behavior and state terrorism. North Korea also declines to allow nuclear inspections, claiming that Iraq had made this mistake.

Last February, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) passed a resolution declaring North Korea in noncompliance of its obligations under international accords. The IAEA's move is opening the way for economic sanctions or other punitive measures against the country, which Pyongyang has made clear it would regard as an act of war.

The former Soviet Union was one of North Korea's main suppliers of nuclear know-how when the two were Cold War allies. Russia now says that its nuclear cooperation with the isolationist communist country ended nearly a decade ago.

Pyongyang's nuclear program started with a small Soviet-supplied isotope-producing facility. The former Soviet Union and North Korea signed a nuclear cooperation treaty in 1956. In 1965, Soviet experts launched Yongbyon, a 5 megawatt reactor 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang. It has been speculated that North Korea could have some nuclear material from the former Soviet republics.

According to some Russian estimates, theoretically Pyongyang could have enough plutonium for more than 60 nuclear bombs. However, Russian experts have argued that North Korea would be unable to develop operational nuclear bombs without live tests.

Last February, North Korea threatened to strike US targets anywhere in the world. South Korea has already asked Moscow to mediate in the crisis on the Korean peninsula. Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly promised Moscow's assistance in dealing with North Korea.

No wonder that Seoul repeatedly sought Moscow's mediation. For instance, South Korea's national security advisor Ra Jong-yil traveled to Moscow to discuss the North Korean nuclear problem. The Korean peninsula must remain free of nuclear weapons, Russia's Security Council secretary Vladimir Rushailo told the Korean envoy on March 31. "The North Korean nuclear program should be peaceful and limited by a non-proliferation regime," Rushailo was quoted as saying by RIA.

On the even of the war on Iraq, a flurry of diplomatic activities took place between Russia and another "rogue state", Iran. Notably, a meeting of the Iran-Russia Economic Commission was held in Tehran on March 17-19. The head of Russia's delegation and State Property Minister Farid Gazizulin met Iran's Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani. "Cooperation between Iran and Russia is to contribute to sustaining peace and prevent conflicts in the region," Shamkhani reportedly told Gazizulin.

In a separate development, earlier in March, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov announced in Tehran that Moscow will continue its nuclear energy cooperation with Iran in the framework of the IAEA. "Iran has no plans to produce nuclear military projects, this is a fundamental truth," Ivanov reportedly stated in a joint news conference with Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi in Tehran.

On March 14, the Russian Foreign Ministry once again said in a statement that Russia and Iran pledged to continue nuclear cooperation, which is "of completely peaceful character".

Likewise, Russians are well informed about Iran's nuclear ambitions as Moscow makes no secret of its continuing nuclear flirting with Iran. For instance, some 100 Iranians are being trained at Novovoronezh nuclear facility in Central Russia as future personnel for the Bushehr nuclear plant. Over 700 Iranians are to be trained by the time the first reactor of the Bushehr power plant is due to be launched in 2004.

However, on March 11, Russia's Nuclear Power Minister Alexander Rumyantsev said that although Moscow was helping Iran develop nuclear power, it could not say whether Tehran was secretly developing nuclear arms, as the US claims. Therefore, Rumyantsev backpedaled from his own February 21 statement that "Iran does not have the capacity to build nuclear weapons".

Russia has long come under heavy criticism from the West for its help in building the Bushehr nuclear plant on Iran's Gulf coast. The US claims that the Russian technology could be used to develop nuclear weapons, but Moscow and Tehran argue that the plant can be used only for civilian purposes and will remain under international control.

Moscow has brushed off repeated US demands that it cancel the US$800 million Bushehr 1,000 megawatt light-water nuclear reactor project. The Kremlin has repeatedly argued it abides by international agreements banning the proliferation of nuclear technologies.

The Kremlin secured a number of deals when Iranian President Mohammad Khatami visited Russia in March 2001. Khatami and Putin signed a cooperation treaty, the first major accord between the two countries since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Moreover, in October 2001, Moscow and Tehran signed framework agreements for further supplies of Russian military equipment to Iran to be worth $300-400 million annually. The accord would reportedly involve supplies of spare parts for Russian-made weapons, new fighter jets and possibly air defense, ground-to-ground and anti-ship systems.

Neither agreement makes Russia and Iran strategic partners, but they are aimed at further strengthening what was officially described as "partner-like, neighborly relations". It has been rumored in Moscow that a more formal alliance treaty with Iran could be one of Moscow's countermeasures against US-backed regime change in Iraq.

(©2003 Asia Times Online Co, Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact content@atimes.com for information on our sales and syndication policies.)
 
Apr 2, 2003



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