On the eve of President Clinton's talks with President Boris N. Yeltsin in Moscow, the GOP congressional leadership has issued one of its sharpest challenges yet to the Administration's conduct of foreign policy.
U.S.-Russia relations, say House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, could face what Dole warns would be "almost immediate" re-examination unless Russia cancels or significantly modifies its planned sale of nuclear reactors and associated technology to Iran. Gingrich, being Gingrich, used even feistier language to deliver his threat. Without being specific, he warned of "catastrophic" consequences unless Moscow amends its plans for the deal.
Concern over how that deal could aid Iran's evident drive to acquire the basis for a nuclear weapons program is of course bipartisan--Clinton plans to raise the issue when he meets with Yeltsin--and the Administration at this stage needs no lectures about its potential risks. The difference between Clinton and his critics in Congress is that the President has the responsibility to consider how all aspects of foreign relations interact, and the effect of the whole on American long-term interests.
A nuclear-armed Iranian regime that claims to have a God-inspired mission to foment instability here, there and everywhere is undoubtedly a threat to regional and U.S. interests. But even more inimical to those interests would be a Russia whose inherently anti-American ultranationalists could only get a boost if the kind of punitive steps that Dole and Gingrich threaten are imposed.
Secretary of State Warren Christopher has already asked the right question: Just what would critics cut? Funding for dismantling the nuclear weapons that once targeted American cities? Support for privatization and free elections, both of which strengthen those forces in Russian society that share U.S. interests and values? It's easy and maybe even popular to threaten cuts in assistance programs if Moscow defies Washington on the Iran deal. But implemented, such a threat could prove painfully self-wounding.
U.S. concern about a nuclear-armed Iran is proper. But a Russia starved for hard cash would be very reluctant to abandon the reactor deal. What's important, then, is for Washington at a minimum to press for the strictest safeguards and inspections to make sure Iran doesn't divert either nuclear materials or know-how to a weapons program. Here, as Russian Foreign Minister Andrei V. Kozyrev has signaled, Moscow might well prove more cooperative, for in the end, as even Russia's most nationalistic elements should see, not allowing Iran to become the world's next nuclear power is as much a Russian as a U.S. interest.