Money, regional clout behind Russian arms sales to Iran
'Israel has almost no leverage' to block deals to Iran
By HILARY LEILA KRIEGER
When Aryeh Levin was Israel's ambassador to Russia right after the Iron curtain opened, he tried to convince the Kremlin not to aid Iran.
But Boris Yeltsin's vice president Alexander Rutskoi told him, "We're getting billions of dollars from Iran and no one can offer us anything instead."
Nothing much has changed in the Russian attitude since that time, according to Levin. Russia's eagerness to sell arms to Iran comes down to basics: Money and power.
"They want to get back to their former positions in some of the Middle East countries, and they're doing it in Iran because Iran is open to them and opposed to the West, which jives with their interests," Levin explained.
Arms deals are an ideal option, he said, since ensuing military consultations by Russian experts will give the country direct influence over the Iranian armed forces. And there's also a psychological payoff, Levin pointed out. "The primary [goal] of Russia is to maintain the Iranian feeling that Russia is their only remaining friend."
The Russians "want to prevent American hegemony in the region," summed up Prof. Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies. And, he noted, the move also props up the Russian arms industry.
These goals are at least as important as improving ties with the West, Levin said. "Russia is interested in maintaining good relations with the West... but this does not supersede its strategic interest in the Middle East."
Though the weapons deals can arouse Western anger, but there is little even the United States can do to stop Russia, in Levin's opinion: "I don't think the West has a particular amount of strength or willpower to go beyond what they're doing now. They can't ostracize Russia or cut off Russia."
Which means there's also not so much Israel can do, other than stress "shared interests" in containing Iran.
"We don't have a great deal of leverage with the Russians - we have almost no leverage with the Russians," Levin acknowledged.
Still, a Foreign Ministry official who focuses on Russia said that Israel is pursuing the issue through "diplomatic" channels. "This is part of our dialogue with Russia. This is not the first time Russia's selling weapons to our enemies," he noted.
Israeli officials, though, haven't hesitated to publicly vent their displeasure. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin, for one, declared Saturday that the reported Russian sale of more than $1 billion in missile systems to Iran was a "very dangerous move" which "encourages the regime in Iran to continue with its dangerous policies."
And Israel has reason to be concerned, Inbar said. "It gives [Iran] an ability they didn't have before and strengthens them. This is not something that is conducive to regional stability."
That threat doesn't necessarily concern Russia, said Levin, adding that the Russians might be underestimating the Iranian capability to construct a nuclear bomb, but might also be figuring the Iranians wouldn't attack their patron.
After all, Rutskoi also told Levin: "We don't think it [arm sales] is so dangerous - so we're going to keep on doing it."