In a speech widely reported in Belarus and Iran this week, Belarusian President Aleksandr Lukashenko called on Tehran to expand its investments in the former Soviet republic.
Lukashenko said Belarus and Iran “share an identical worldview.”
“As far as our political relations with Iran are concerned, we have absolutely no problems at all... We both actively support multilateralism and noninterference in internal affairs,” Lukashenko said in remarks reported on his official website following a meeting with Iran’s ambassador to Belarus, Seyyed Abdollah Hosseini.
As ties between the two countries deepen and as Minsk continues to voice its unequivocal support for the Islamic Republic, there are concerns in Israel and the US that Belarus could help Iran to sidestep increasingly strict sanctions and that it could be willing to act as a conduit for Russian arms and weapons technologies.
In a report published in the US Foreign Military Studies Office’s OE Watch magazine this month, former Pentagon official Michael Rubin noted that though Belarus is a relatively small country, Iran has sent many trade and defense delegations there, the most recent led by Tehran Chamber of Commerce chief Yahya Al-e Eshagh.
Eshagh, according to Rubin, is “often the point man on Iranian efforts to convince emerging markets and developing countries to bypass sanctions.”
The volume of trade between Belarus and Iran suggests that Minsk could be open to persuasion by Eshagh.
Iran’s ambassador in Minsk, Hosseini, said on Monday that over the past five years, mutual trade between the two states has increased exponentially.
“Iranian investment to Belarus totaled nearly $6 million when I came here in September 2008. In December 2010 this figure exceeded $960m. in banking capital and investment,” Hosseini noted.
A report last week by Italian daily La Stampa claimed that Iranian banks, several of which hold capital in Belarus, were using the former Soviet republic to circumvent tough EU banking sanctions by registering subsidiaries in Minsk.
La Stampa cited unnamed Western intelligence sources as saying that Iran had created new financial institutions in Minsk that would later be re-registered as Belarusian banks in order to avoid sanctions.
Iran operates a similar scheme in Russia, using the Moscow-based Mir Business Bank CJSC as a channel for Iranian businessmen to keep trading despite banking sanctions.
Mir was originally a subsidiary of Bank Melli, which Iran renamed in response to US sanctions in 2010.
Mir’s parent company is Iran’s state-owned Bank Melli Iran, which the US has subjected to sanctions because of its role in aiding Iran’s nuclear program. US Treasury officials have expressed concern about Mir’s operations in Russia, The Wall Street Journal reported on Tuesday.
Analysts have also warned that Iran may be trying to procure Russian military technology and arms via Belarus, which, according to Russia’s defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov, ranks first among CIS countries in terms of arms imports – including the S-300 SAM systems – from Russia. Like Iran, the former Soviet republic is an increasingly isolated regime.
Since 2010, Belarus has been subject to US and EU sanctions, after Lukashenko cracked down on anti-government protesters.
In October the EU decided to renew sanctions for another year against the former Soviet republic, citing human rights concerns and failure to respect democratic principles.
Belarus has consistently denied accusations that it has ignored arms sanctions and sold arms to various countries, including Syria.
Last February, the UN accused Belarus of breaking an international arms embargo to supply three attack helicopters to the Ivory Coast’s President Laurent Gbagbo. Minsk has also been accused of violating a UN Security Council regulation to make illegal arms shipments, including laser aiming devices, to Bashar Assad’s regime in Damascus. In September, the US Treasury imposed sanctions on Belarusian state-owned company Belvneshpromservice for preparing to supply fuses for general-purpose aerial bombs to Syria’s Army Supply Bureau. According to a March report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Belarus was the second-largest arms supplier to Syria in 2007-2011.
Rubin warned that Minsk’s readiness to sell arms to Syria “suggests Minsk’s willingness to act as a surrogate for Russia in the Middle East.” Iran is particularly keen to acquire Russia’s S-300 long-range surface-to-air (SAM) missile system, developed to defend against air strikes and cruise missiles. In 2007, Iran inked a deal with Moscow to acquire the system but the sale was quashed in 2010, when then-Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree banning the sale of Russian weapons to Iran in the wake of an arms embargo.
In July Tehran filed a $4 billion lawsuit in the Geneva Arbitration Court, demanding compensation for Moscow’s failure to supply the S-300 SAM systems.
Iran desperately needs the Russian S-300 SAM systems to bolster its air defenses against possible US or Israeli air strikes designed to set back its attempts to acquire nuclear weapons. Iran is currently over-reliant on S-200 VE Vega SAM systems, originally designed by the Soviets in the 1960s and largely obsolete in a modern combat environment. Military analysts have said that Libya’s S-200 systems proved ineffective against US Navy and US Air Force strike aircraft in 1986.
By obtaining Russian arms via Minsk, Tehran would have an alternative supply route for arms and weapons technology, while Moscow would maintain plausible deniability over arms transactions.
"Should Belarus help Iran bypass restrictions on arms imports, for example, by shipping Tehran the S-300 system outright or, more likely, providing technology to enable Iran’s indigenous arms industry to replicate the system, it might accelerate Iran’s capabilities or, conversely, hasten an international response to preempt deployment of advanced systems,” Rubin warned, while noting that so far, such a relationship between Iran and Belarus remains “in the realm of supposition.”
There have already been indications that Minsk is willing to supply Iran with the S-300 system.
In 2006, Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that Belarus was preparing to export the latest and most advanced version of Russia’s S-300 SAM system to Iran, and in 2010 Iran’s IRGC-run Fars News agency’s website ran a story – swiftly taken down – saying that Belarus had agreed to supply Iran with two rockets for the S-300 system.
More recently, sources in Belarus have suggested that announcements this year by Iran regarding advances in its SAM capabilities indicate that Minsk may be at least providing technological assistance to Iran’s military.
In September, Iran announced that it is upgrading its S-200 systems. Brig.-Gen. Farzad Esmaili, the commander of Iran’s Khatam-ol-Anbiya Air Defense Base, said that the system will undergo extensive systemic and structural modifications, extending its use as a medium-to-high-altitude SAM system.
Also this year, Iran claimed to have constructed almost 30 percent of the Bavar-373, a domestically-built SAM system intended to replace the Russian S-300.
While Esmaili has insisted that Iran is undertaking the projects entirely without foreign assistance, analysts have questioned whether Tehran could make significant combat and operational upgrades to complex Soviet-designed equipment without expert help from those countries.
Belarusian military analyst Aleksandr Alesin has suggested that Tetraedr, a privately-owned company that specializes in upgrading air defense missile systems as well as developing and manufacturing radio-electronic weapons systems and hardware and software for radar assets, could possibly be involved in Iran’s S-200 upgrade program.
According to a 2007 report by Russia’s Interfax news agency, Tetraedr offers an upgrading service for the S-200 VE Vega system, carried out on location so that customers do not have to move the missile systems from their places of deployment.
As part of its service, Tetraedr is also able to perform repairs on the S-200 system that extend its serviceable life, the report said.
Despite these indications, Dr. Paul Holtom, director of SIPRI’s Arms Transfers Program, told The Jerusalem Post that while it is possible that Belarus engages in military-technical cooperation with Iran, he has yet to see “credible evidence that it has provided to Iran items falling within the seven categories of the UN Register of Conventional Arms.”
Holtom noted that there have been reports suggesting that Minsk has begun to help Iran develop its surface-to-surface missile (SSM) and nuclear capabilities. One, a Reuters report from last September, cites a diplomat from a country critical of Iran’s nuclear program as saying that intelligence information indicated a Belarusian businessman, Yuri Charniauski, had tried to secure technology for his company, TM Services, from a Russian firm called Optolink in order to sell it to Iran.
However, Holtom said that a final report by a UN panel of experts this June did not mention Charniauski.
“[I am] waiting for a concrete case in which one can easily see that Belarus has been used as a conduit to mask Russian actions,” Holtom concluded.