London (CNSNews.com) - Four years ago, Israeli government officials said the Clinton administration had stopped sharing information with Israel about Iran's nuclear plans fearing that the continued cooperation would damage U.S.-Russian relations.
The U.S. Senate Wednesday is holding hearings into allegations that Vice President Al Gore had, in the mid-1990s, acquiesced to Russian arms sales to Iran even though they violated U.S. non-proliferation laws.
The Washington Times reported earlier this month that then-Russian Prime Minister Victor Chernomyrdin had asked Gore in a December 1995 letter to keep Russian nuclear cooperation with Iran confidential and not to convey it "to third parties, including the U.S. Congress."
Israel is arguably a primary target if Iran should ever acquire non-conventional warfare capability, and its government has for years been urging both the Russians and Chinese not to collaborate with Tehran in this field.
In December 1996, the respected Hebrew-language daily Ha'aretz quoted a senior Israeli source present at a regular U.S.-Israel security meeting in Washington as saying the subject of information sharing on Iran's program had come up.
"When I tried to find out what happened [why the U.S. was not sharing the information any longer], it turned out that there was political pressure in Washington out of concern of hurting the Yeltsin government in Russia."
The concern was that Congress might react by punishing Russia for helping to build Iran's nuclear potential, the official said.
The Americans denied that this was the case, but the Israeli official said he had responded: "We know what the Russians are doing, and your [U.S.] intelligence also knows, but the cooperation has ceased." The Americans responded that they would look into the situation.
Seven months later, on July 3, 1997, another report in Ha'aretz quoted Israeli government sources as claiming that the U.S. had "refrained from using its full weight" to dissuade Russia from selling military technology to Iran.
The Americans had wanted to avoid further friction with Moscow at a time President Boris Yeltsin was objecting to the eastward expansion of NATO, they said.
That assessment seemed to contradict what U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk told the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee shortly thereafter: "We are very concerned with the transfer of missile technology to Iran," he said. "The main concern is a possible transfer of such technology from Russia."
Two months later, the highly regarded Jane's Intelligence Review was warning that, unless Western countries acted immediately to block the transfer of highly-enriched uranium to Iran, Tehran would be capable of implementing its "atomic revolution" in the very near future.
Writing in the Moscow Times this week, U.S. defense consultant Reuben Johnson pointed to what he sees as the ramifications of the alleged Gore-Chernomyrdin deal.
"Having now seen that Gore concealed the transfer of Russian nuclear technology to one of its most feared potential enemies, what Israeli prime minister is going to believe his assurances that America will protect Israel's strategic interests should he become president?" he asked.
"What nation is going to take U.S. initiatives in the field of nuclear nonproliferation seriously after these revelations? And what happens when another Russian president or prime minister asks Gore to hide another arms sale from Congress?"
Russia Insisted Reactor Was For 'Peaceful' Purposes
The issue of Russia's collaboration with Iran in the nuclear field came to a head in May 1995, when Clinton and Yeltsin held a summit in Moscow.
Several days earlier, on May 7, Gore and Chernomyrdin met in London to discuss Russia's plans to help Iran complete the construction of a nuclear power station containing two reactors at the Gulf port of Bushehr. The contract was worth about $1 billion in valuable hard currency to Moscow.
"The Russians believe they have forced Washington to drop its demand that the sale be scrapped," reported a London newspaper the day following the Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting.
Clinton went to the summit under pressure from Congress to persuade Yeltsin to rethink the nuclear reactor sale.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had told Clinton that if he returned from the summit without guarantees that Moscow was backing away from the sale, "the tone in Congress about helping Russia will have changed very dramatically."
It was the president's job to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons, he said, not to "go to Russia to make Yeltsin happy."
Nonetheless, Clinton did return without a Russian agreement. Yeltsin told him "peaceful" nuclear technology would be sold to Tehran despite threats to cut off aid.
The contentious issue, according to media reports at the time, was then referred to a commission headed by Gore and Chernomyrdin.
Eight months later, in January 1996, Russia and Iran signed a contract to complete the reactor plant at Bushehr.
Although the official Russian line remained that this was intended for peaceful purposes, a senior advisor to Yeltsin, Alexei Yablokov, told the Interfax news agency in April 1996 that the plan could compromise Russia's own safety by making it more likely that neighboring Iran would develop nuclear weapons.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher also was quoted as saying he believed Iran wanted to acquire the technology to build a plutonium bomb.
While Gore now is competing for the most powerful position in the world, Chernomyrdin's political star has waned considerably since the days of their meetings.
Sacked as premier by Yeltsin in early 1998 for introducing economic reforms too slowly, he enjoyed a brief career as host of a Saturday night prime-time television series.
But his once-powerful party, Our Home is Russia, collapsed in last December's parliamentary election, taking just 1.12 per cent of the vote, down from 10.13 per cent in the 1995 election.
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