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Russia, Iran take on deeper military ties

Senior Russian and Iranian defense officials announced an expanded military and security partnership Thursday that signals renewed cooperation and undermines efforts by the Clinton administration to prevent arms transfers to Iran.

Although neither side announced new arms sales, U.S. officials have expressed fear that Russian military assistance and technology transfers could be used to aid Iran's nuclear program and that conventional arms sales could threaten regional stability and U.S. interests in the oil-rich Middle East.

Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev and his lieutenants held three days of meetings with their Iranian counterparts in the first visit by a Russian defense chief since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. The talks came only a few weeks after Russia notified the United States that it plans to back out of a 1995 agreement between Moscow and Washington halting new battlefield weapons contracts with Iran after 1999.

The U.S. State Department has threated Russia with economic sanctions if it abandons the pledge. But Sergeyev and his Iranian counterpart, Rear Adm. Ali Shamkhani, made it clear Thursday neither side is in a mood to listen to such threats.

"Today marks a historical day in Iran-Russia political ties," Shamkhani said in a joint news conference with Sergeyev. "The two countries have made concrete decisions to expand and deepen all kinds of long-term military, security and defense relations."

Taking a jab at the U.S. warnings, Shamkhani said, "Today, it is proved that independent states are free in choosing their allies irrespective of the views of others and external intervention."

"There was a big pause in relations between the two countries, mainly in the military sphere," Sergeyev said, referring to the 1995 U.S.-Russian pact. "There will be no pauses from now on."

Sergeyev added that Russian-Iranian cooperation "will pose no threat to any third country, but will help promote peace and security in the Central Asian region."

A growing number of countries have initiated new economic and political relations with Iran in defiance of U.S. calls for sanctions against the Tehran government, which Washington accuses of sponsoring international terrorism and developing a nuclear program that some believe could lead to weapons production.

The 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami, a moderate cleric who has attempted with varying degrees of success to initiate political and social reform in the strict Islamic state, has eroded international will to abide by the sanctions.

But U.S. officials have said they consider Russian relations with Iran a particularly dangerous alliance for U.S. interests.