Russia - Iran Beef Up Ties
United Over Iraq
By Gareth Jones

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia and Iran pledged Wednesday to strengthen bilateral economic links, especially in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region. In comments likely to be scrutinised in Washington, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and Iranian counterpart Kamal Kharrazi also praised U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's success in brokering a deal to end the Iraq crisis and reiterated their opposition to the use of military force. ``The political will exists between the leadership of our countries to increase mutual cooperation in the economic and political fields and on the international stage,'' Kharrazi told a joint news conference with Primakov. Kharrazi is on a two-day visit to Moscow and will meet Prime
Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin Thursday. He said the two countries were working closely together to promote stability in the Middle East and in Central Asia, particularly in Afghanistan and the former Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Both have suffered years of civil war. Kharrazi stressed the need to resolve the vexed issue of the
Caspian Sea's formal status to allow an orderly development of its rich oil and natural gas resources. ``In order to avoid chaos we must in the near future work out the final status of the Caspian in a way that is mutually acceptable to all sides,'' he said. Iran and Russia have long argued that the Caspian is a lake,
not a sea, and therefore the common property of all adjacent states, which also include the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan. Moscow and Tehran say all projects should be developed jointly. The other three littoral states say the Caspian should be divided into national sectors and exploited independently. Azerbaijan is already benefitting from the first production by an $8 billion consortium led by Norway's Statoil AS and British Petroleum off the Azeri coast. The ministers said they had a common approach on the Iraq crisis, where Moscow has been at the forefront of diplomatic efforts to defuse the tense standoff between the United Nations and Baghdad over U.N. arms inspections. Primakov and Kharrazi hailed Annan's 11th-hour success in averting an immediate U.S.-led air strike against Iraq by clinching a deal with President Saddam Hussein to allow inspectors unlimited access to suspected sites of biological and chemical weapons. ``We were against any military strikes before (the Annan deal) and now such action would be all the more unjustifiable,'' Primakov said. In comments sure to please his Russian hosts, Kharrazi said the Annan deal showed the time had passed when one power could unilaterally dictate conditions to other countries. Russia, shorn of its superpower status since the collapse of
Soviet communism, has been critical of U.S. domination of the post-Cold War world. Washington has been wary of the rapprochement between its old rival Russia and Iran, a state it accuses of sponsoring terrorism and seeking nuclear arms. Iran denies the U.S. charges. Primakov said Kharrazi had assured him Iran had no plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction. Russia has refused to abandon a $800 million contract to build Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant despite U.S. and Israeli fears that the unit could provide nuclear arms technology to Tehran. Iran says its nuclear program is strictly civilian and monitored by the United Nations. Wednesday Interfax news agency quoted Russian military and diplomatic sources as saying Moscow might reconsider pledges it has made not to conclude fresh deals with Iran to provide arms if the United States launched military action against Iraq. Officials were not immediately available to comment on the report, which said Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin had given an assurance to Washington that Moscow would sell arms to Tehran solely under the terms of an old Soviet-era accord.

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