The Russians are Coming

Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov visited the Middle East in late October in what many Israelis viewed as an obvious effort to reassert Moscow's regional influence, which has sagged since the fall of Soviet communism. The tour--with stops in Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem, Ram'Allah, Cairo and Amman--brought no real breakthroughs, but demonstrated Russia's ability to play either a constructive or a spoiler's role, making it clear that the Kremlin cannot be ignored by Jerusalem.

While Russia was a co-sponsor with the US of the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, it was relegated to mere observer at Israel's subsequent peace accord signing ceremonies with Jordan and the PLO. More recently, Primakov had pressed Israel to accept Russian participation in the Grapes of Wrath monitoring committee observing the conflict in south Lebanon, and for a greater Russian role in regional peace talks.

His approaches to Israel, however, have been handicapped by his own stated positions, and by his country's blatant and counterproductive arming of the Syrian and Iranian regimes.

Primakov did little to help his prospects during his October trip, when he stated that Moscow would be the first to recognise a Palestinian state and that he placed the blame squarely on Israel for placing hurdles in the way of peace talks with the Palestinian Authority and with Syria and Lebanon. (It should be noted that Primakov is a former Pravda correspondent in Cairo, ex-Member of the Soviet Politburo, and a veteran Kremlin Arabist).

Such decidedly pro-Arab stances impeded Israel's prompt acceptance of increased Russian mediation with her Arab neighbours. The more immediate Israeli concern, however, related to Russian technology transfers and scientific help to Iran's ballistic missile program. Despite what Israeli Foreign Minister David Levy characterised as "hard evidence" that Russia was directly masterminding Tehran's development of long-range missiles, Primakov insisted--in vintage Soviet-era denial style--that Russia was not violating non-proliferation agreements. "Russia is not doing anything that would advance Iran toward possession of weapons of mass destruction," he asserted. "[N]either technology nor materials of any kind that could be used in the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction" were being provided to Iran. (The Jerusalem Post, Oct 27)

US and Israeli intelligence, however, are equally adamant that Russian companies and technicians are helping Tehran make significant advances in its missile program. The clear Iranian aim is missiles capable of hitting Israel (and much of Western Europe), with conventional and nonconventional warheads. US Congressional sources believe Iran is about eight months away from its own sustainable production capabilities, when even a full cut-off of Russian assistance will not seriously impede Iran's nuclear programme. Jane's Intelligence Review in early November gave Iran just four months to acquire full nuclear capability. American and Israeli intelligence projections agree that, unless Russian assistance ends at once, Iran will complete development of missiles capable of hitting Israel and the Gulf states within 6-8 months and much of western Europe by 1999. Other missiles in early development stages are slated to have ranges up to 10,000 kilometres, capable of hitting the mainland US.

The Clinton administration has sent first Vice President Al Gore and now special envoy Frank Wisner to Moscow to explore a possible payoff to Russia for ending its deadly technology assistance to Iran. This effort is designed in part to head off Congressional action barring all American assistance to Russia due to its link with the Iranian missile build-up.

The Primakov shuttle ended with his announcement in Cairo that Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Posuvalyuk was being immediately assigned as Moscow's special peace envoy to the Middle East, joining the field of American envoy Dennis Ross and European Union mediator Miguel Moratinos.

Reports say Primakov considers the US monopoly on Israeli-Arab mediation a hindrance to progress, and that Russia was therefore "determined to pursue an active course in the Middle East." (The Jerusalem Post, Nov 2).

While Israel is unlikely to concede equal billing at this time for Russia and the EU alongside the US, PLO chairman Yasser Arafat apparently shares Russia's sentiments. Arafat told EU leaders just before Primakov's visit that Europe should put "constructive pressure" on Israel via its unique trade agreement with the Jewish state.

Some observers see the PA's delay tactics in the early November talks at the US State Department as a signal of Palestinian thinking that maybe Washington is no longer the only address to shop at for leverage over Israeli policy.


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