3 September AFP

Sharon's Moscow visit delays Russia-Iran arms deal


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Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sparked controversy in Russia even before his arrival here Monday when Iran's defense minister unexpectedly postponed a coinciding Moscow visit on which he was due to strike a lucrative arms purchase deal.

Sharon's plane is due to touch down in Moscow some time after 10:00 pm (1800 GMT). He will meet President Vladimir Putin and the most senior Russian ministers on Tuesday.

Strikingly, his visit was timed to coincide with the arrival in Moscow of Ali Shamkhani, defense minister of Israel's arch-enemy Iran, who was due to put the finishing touches to a raft of arms deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars a year to Russia. However, citing "informed sources" in Tehran, the IRNA news agency said Shamkhani had indefinitely postponed his trip "to foil the Zionist regime's negative propaganda purposes from the simultaneous trip to Moscow by the Zionist regime's prime minister".

The Russian defense ministry in Moscow said it was unaware that Shamkhani's visit had been called off. The diplomatic posturing reflects Russia's struggle to identify its post-Soviet role in the Middle East, where it wants to act as an objective and authoritative mediator in the peace process while also signing lucrative arms contracts with nations that have been given pariah status by the United States.

On Friday, Moscow is to play host to Palestinian number two Mahmud Abbas, who arrives here one day after Sharon's visit ends. Israeli officials said that Sharon would pressure Putin either to interrupt the Iranian arms deal, or make certain that only conventional weapons are included in the sale, which already breaks a private Moscow agreement with Washington on dealings with Tehran.

Yet diplomats and analysts said Sharon will also be keen to enlist a new friend in the region at a time when Israel's tactics in dealing with the Palestinian uprising are coming under international attack. Palestinian officials in Moscow, however, have been quick to assert that neither Sharon nor Putin would obtain what they want from each other during their talks.

"Russia has not succeeded in strengthening its role in the search for a Middle East peace settlement, whereas the other co-sponsor (of the peace process), the United States, is totally pro-Israeli," the Palestinian ambassador to Russia, Khairi al-Oridi, said on the eve of Sharon's visit. "Even applying pressure on Sharon, Russia will not be able to achieve anything," he said.

Putin's position during his talks with Sharon -- that arms sales to Iran should continue -- is certain to attract Israel's resentment as it perceives Iran to be its most dangerous foe. Moscow's nuclear cooperation with Tehran, including Russia's delayed construction of the Bushehr nuclear reactor, had been expected to feature prominently during the Iranian defense minister's visit.

A source in the Russia's defense ministry told one Moscow news agency that the visit was to focus on "military and military-technical cooperation" -- a euphemism for arms sales. Russian officials have stressed that Moscow had no intention of selling "offensive" weapons to Iran that could harm Israel.

Military analysts close to the Russian defense ministry said the arms deals with Tehran should be valued at some 250-300 million dollars annually, making Iran the third-largest Russian arms purchaser after China and India.

Iran's purchases will include Mig-29 jets, light tanks and mid-range air defense systems, most likely the S-300 unit which has been compared to the US Patriot missile used in the 1991 Gulf War, according to Konstantin Makiyenko of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies.

Other analysts said that Iran has earmarked 10 billion dollars for re-arming its defenses by 2010, with Russia expecting to see some three to four billion dollars of that sum. "Iran in particular wants the S-300s, so that it can defend its nuclear power plant," said Vladimir Urban of the AVN military news agency.

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