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Sharon to Discuss Weapons Transfer, Mideast Conflict, with Putin - 2001-09-03

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin and senior Russian officials. Moscow was also scheduled to host Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani this week, but he delayed his visit so it would not overlap with that of the Israeli leader.

Ariel Sharon is in town for two main reasons: to try to enlist Russia's support in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to try to convince Russia not to sell weapons and military technology to Iran.

Dmitri Trenin of Moscow's Carnegie Endowment for International Peace says Prime Minister Sharon will put his case to the Russian leadership.

"He [Sharon] will be looking for Russian assurances they will lean on Mr. [Yasser] Arafat and ask him to rein in those Israel and indeed Russia should view as terrorists," Mr. Trenin says.

Mr. Sharon has characterized the 11-month old Palestinian uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as simple "terrorism" much like the situation in Chechnya, where Russian troops are fighting against separatist rebels. President Putin has taken a hardline approach against Chechen rebels and Russian analysts say Mr. Sharon will be looking for sympathy for tough Israeli actions against the Palestinians.

Dmitri Trenin says Mr. Sharon's other underlying concern is Iran.

"I think Iran is very much on Mr. Sharon's mind," he says. "He will be trying to impress Moscow, not just with words and arguments, but also with the prospect of some deals the Israelis could offer to Russia if Russia were to forego some of the lucrative possibilities with regard to Iran."

Mr. Trenin says the Israelis could offer various high-tech defense projects, including satellite technology. He says while Russia is certainly interested in the technology, such offers are not likely to change Russian policy toward Iran.

Mr. Sharon has repeatedly expressed concern about the spread of weapons of mass destruction to countries such as Iran and he is likely to tell Russian officials that Israelis including those of Russian descent - will be in increasing danger if Iran is able to upgrade its arsenal and possibly build a nuclear missile.

Russia said last year it would renew arms sales to Iran, despite strenuous objections from the United States, but Moscow insists it will only sell Iran defensive weapons.

Independent military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer says Prime Minister Sharon's objections to such sales will be met with a polite but firm "no" from the Kremlin.

"Russia has many times stated that it will not change or customize its relations because of third country problems," he explains. " Russians actually tell that to the United States about Iran and will [say that] most likely even more so to Israel."

Iranian Defense Minister Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani was also scheduled to be in Moscow this week to talk about the weapons and technology Tehran would like to buy. The list includes battle tanks, MIG-29 fighter jets, long range torpedoes and long distance anti-aircraft missiles. But, a senior foreign ministry official in Tehran said Monday Mr. Shamkhani's visit would be postponed.

The prospect of Moscow hosting Mr. Sharon and Mr. Shamkhani at the same time did seem somewhat odd. But, political analyst Dmitri Trenin says it would simply reflect the fact that Russian foreign policy is advancing in different and often competing directions at one time.

" I think the government in Moscow will try to balance its relations with Iran with those of Israel," Mr. Trenin says. " So, there will be some progress coming out of Sharon's discussions in Moscow, but I don't think Sharon could hope to put an end to Russia's relations with Iran."

Mr. Trenin adds that Iran plays a very important role in Russian geopolitical thinking and he says Moscow will seek to maintain that relationship.