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Los Angeles Times

Miniature Cold War for Caspian. Wednesday, March 14, 2001

Iran's relations with Russia have been gradually improving since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and they bode to become even warmer. This week Iranian President Mohammad Khatami is in Russia, finding common ground with President Vladimir V. Putin in opposing growing U.S. influence in the energy-rich Caspian Sea region and signing deals--over strong U.S. objections--that will bring Iran access to Russian weapons and nuclear technology.

A secret 1995 agreement with Washington bound Russia from selling arms to Iran. Late last year Moscow pulled out of that accord. Now, an Iranian official says, Iran could be on track to buy up to $7 billion in Russian arms. Ignoring U.S. concerns, Moscow also plans to complete an $800-million nuclear power plant in Iran. The U.S. fear is that Iran's nuclear technology could be turned to weapons production. Iran is believed to be moving toward a nuclear capability and a missile delivery system.

Both presidents expressed displeasure with U.S. activities in the Caspian Sea region, an area of huge oil and gas reserves. Iran and Russia border the Caspian, as do Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan, formerly parts of the Soviet Union. Expanding energy production from these fields will require new transportation routes to world markets. For political and security reasons the newly independent states don't want to rely on Russia or Iran as their only export outlet.

Among alternative routes would be a U.S.-endorsed pipeline across Azerbaijan, Georgia and Turkey. American energy companies are already active in the Caspian region. Increased Caspian exports could reduce the world's overdependence on Middle Eastern suppliers. Caspian development would also probably boost U.S. influence in the area's newly independent states and help them resist political inroads by Russia and Iran. That prospect is one of the considerations working to bring Moscow and Tehran closer.