Russia and Iran cemented their ever-closer relationship Monday with a pair of agreements signed by Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and Russian President Vladimir V. Putin aimed at spurring more of the kind of military and economic cooperation that causes jitters in Washington.
Khatami’s visit to Moscow seals a long, deliberate attempt by Russia to curry favor with states outside the U.S. sphere of influence, especially those that are customers for Moscow’s arms and weaponry.
“We consider [the military] sphere of our joint activity to be a very important one. It is important both for Iran and the Russian Federation,” Putin said after signing the agreements in a Kremlin ceremony. “We believe that Iran must be an independent state capable of defending its national interests.”
The United States has tried for years to limit Russian military cooperation with Iran, which Washington accuses of fomenting terrorism and seeking to develop nuclear weapons. In 1995, Russia secretly agreed to curb such cooperation but formally renounced the pact several months ago after it was made public.
Khatami’s visit is the clearest example to date of the waning state of U.S.-Russian relations, which have been strained by NATO expansion and the alliance’s intervention in Yugoslavia. Moreover, Russia’s rhetoric has hardened in recent weeks as the new Bush administration has made clear that relations with Russia will not be a high priority.
Russia’s increasing coziness with Iran is designed to earn Moscow much-needed hard currency as well as demonstrate its independence and defiance of Washington.
“Iran and Russia are sovereign states which fulfill their international obligations,” said Col. Gen. Leonid Ivashov, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry. “Some may like this cooperation, others not. Our countries will continue working together to their advantage.”
However, Putin insisted that any arms sales would not violate Russia’s international commitments, including those designed to curb nuclear proliferation.
“The applications that Iran and Iranian partners have filed with Russian weapons manufacturers are focused entirely on defensive arms,” Putin said. “Iran is not seeking any weaponry outside the framework of international practice and corresponding commitments undertaken by the Russian Federation.”
Russian and Iranian officials said that no specific arms sales contracts are expected to be signed during Khatami’s visit. Russian officials said Iran would like to buy the S-300 air defense missile system as well as parts for fighter jets and armored vehicles. Russian news reports have said that total arms sales could reach $7 billion.
Putin also pledged that Russia would complete construction of a nuclear power plant at Bushehr, Iran, which the United States fears could be used to produce nuclear weapons. Iran has complained of construction delays.
“We intend to implement our obligations to the full,” Putin said.
Only the general outlines of the two agreements were disclosed. The first agreement sets out general principles for the Russian-Iranian relationship, including military cooperation. The second outlines principles for resolving competing claims for jurisdiction over the Caspian Sea and its rich reserves of oil and natural gas.
In Washington, the Bush administration said it will protest vigorously if Russia sells Iran “advanced conventional weapons or sensitive technologies.”
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States has been unable to determine from the initial Russian announcement what is in the package.
He said that if the sales turn out to involve advanced technology, Washington “would expect to raise [the issue] quite energetically and repeatedly.”
Sergei Tretyakov, a former Russian ambassador to Iran, said that Khatami’s visit should not be seen as a deliberate attempt to irritate the United States.
“Iran is one of the countries located around the perimeter of Russia and, regardless of the fact that it no longer shares a common border with Russia, relations with Iran are a priority for the Russian leadership,” Tretyakov said.
Vitaly V. Naumkin, director of the Russian Center for Strategic Studies, said that at this point--with Iran’s international isolation on the wane and Russia’s need for arms contracts on the rise--Russia needs good relations with Iran more than Iran needs good relations with Russia.
“The visit of the Iranian president should not be perceived as an aggressive signal to the U.S. administration on the part of Russia. The Russian leadership will hardly risk deliberately spoiling Russia’s relations with the U.S. administration,” Naumkin said. “But at the same time, if the U.S. side feels free to unilaterally revise its participation in the 1972 [Antiballistic Missile] Treaty, why should Russia feel obliged to always keep doing only what is useful to the U.S. and not first and foremost what is useful for Russia?”
The last visit to Moscow by a top Iranian leader was in 1989, when parliamentary Speaker Hashemi Rafsanjani concluded contracts for sale of Russian fighter jets and three Kilo-class diesel submarines.
Khatami arrived Monday and will remain in Russia until Thursday. His stay will also include visits to St. Petersburg and the largely autonomous Muslim republic of Tatarstan.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Alexei V. Kuznetsov of The Times’ Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.