Iran and Belarus forge 'strategic partnership'

By Judy Dempsey

BERLIN: Belarus and Iran, two countries isolated by the United States and the European Union, agreed Monday to forge closer economic, trade and political ties, strengthening what the Belarus president termed "a strategic partnership."

The special relationship was highlighted Monday when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, which is saddled with United Nations sanctions for failing to halt its uranium enrichment program, began a two-day visit to Belarus at the invitation of President Alexander Lukashenko, whose country is shunned by the European Union because of its human rights record.

"Tehran-Minsk ties are growing in all fields," Ahmadinejad said after arriving Monday. "The two countries enjoy close cooperation in various areas of transportation, energy, industry, economy and trade."

The Belarus presidential press service said Lukashenko had told Ahmadinejad that relations between Belarus and Iran had reached the level of "strategic partnership."

Analysts say the two countries, which share an antipathy to the United States in particular and the West in general, have been moving closer together as a way as to prove they can survive without either the United States or the European Union.

"Both countries gain advantages from the relationship," said Steven Main, an expert on Belarus at the Conflict Studies Research Center in Britain.

He said both countries wanted to show that they could survive without the United States or European Union.

It is Ahmadinejad's first visit to Belarus, a country sandwiched between the EU and its big neighbor, Russia, on whom it is completely dependent for its gas and oil supplies.

For Lukashenko, the visit offers the opportunity to diversify his country's energy imports by buying oil from Iran. This has become more urgent after Russia's giant state-owned energy monopoly, Gazprom, last December raised the price of its gas to Belarus threefold and obtained a 50 percent stake in Belarus's gas monopoly.

Lukashenko said Monday that Belarus had clinched a deal with Tehran on extracting oil from the southern Jofeir deposit in Iran.

"It would be a big boost for Lukashenko if he could diversify his energy imports away from Russia," said Gregorz Gromadzke, security analyst at the Stefan Batory Foundation in Warsaw. But if he obtains oil from Iran, he added, "it would almost certainly have to pass over Russian territory. The dependence would not go away. Russia would control the transit of the oil."

For its part, Iran has already obtained from Belarus access to advanced technology and specialists to help develop its civilian nuclear power program, according to the Conflict Studies Research Center, which does research for the Defense Ministry.

The United States says that such a program will have a military application, which Iran has denied. Belarus said last year that it would not support Iran's nuclear and ballistic program.

Military cooperation between the two countries has also been increased. In January, the Belarussian defense minister, Leonid Maltsev, agreed with his Iranian counterpart, Mostafa Mohammad Najjar, to exchange technology in the military sector.

Analysts acknowledged Monday that the military cooperation between Iran and Belarus remained opaque, particularly over the role played by Russian arms companies, which analysts say may be using Belarus as a base to sell equipment to Iran.

So sensitive is this issue that Russian and Belarussian officials rushed to deny reports last year that Belarus had re-exported Russian S-300PS surface-to-air missiles to Iran.

"The problem is that we do not know the full extent of the military cooperation between Belarus and Iran," Gromadzke said. "It is very hard to pin down exactly what goes on."

Belarus's trade ties with Iran have yielded concrete results. When Lukashenko came to power in 1994, trade between both countries was valued at $89,000, according to the Conflict Studies Research Center. After Lukashenko's second visit there in 2006, the total value of the contracts signed between the two countries was $350 million.

Ahmadinejad said this was just a step toward achieving a trade turnover of $1 billion. "We think that the first cornerstone for the powerful, long-term cooperation of Belarus and Iran has been laid," he said.

This increase in trade matters hugely for Lukashenko. By finding new export markets, he is seeking to reduce Russia's influence on the country's economy. So far, Iran has proved a lucrative market for machinery, tractors and trucks imported from Belarus, analysts said.

Lukashenko has already visited Iran twice, in 2001 and 2006, but has not visited any EU country recently. The EU has introduced a travel ban on Lukashenko and other top Belarussian officials for quashing independent political parties, arresting opposition leaders and muzzling the media.