Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Gore's Secret Memo

The Clinton administration’s dealings with Russia over the past decade have suddenly become grist for the presidential elections’ mill. John M. Broder reports for The New York Times on a secret arms deal brokered years ago between U.S. Vice President Al Gore and then-Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin.

In June 1995, U.S. Vice President Al Gore signed a secret agreement with Viktor Chernomyrdin, then the prime minister, calling for an end to all Russian sales of conventional weapons to Iran by the end of 1999.

But the deadline passed with no sign of a halt to such sales, despite repeated complaints late last year and this year to senior Russian officials by Gore, U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Moscow continues to be a significant supplier of conventional arms to Tehran despite the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal, the CIA reported in August.

The 1995 agreement allowed Moscow to fulfill existing sales contracts for specified weaponry, including a diesel submarine, torpedoes, anti-ship mines and hundreds of tanks and armored personnel carriers. But no other weapons were to be sold to Iran, and all shipments were to have been completed by last Dec. 31.

In exchange for the Russian promises, the United States pledged not to seek penalties against Russia under a 1992 law that requires sanctions against countries that sell advanced weaponry to countries the State Department classifies as state sponsors of terrorism. Iran is on that list.

Though Gore and Chernomyrdin mentioned an arms agreement in general terms at a news conference the day it was signed, the details have never been disclosed to Congress or to the public.

The Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement appeared to undercut a 1992 law, the Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act, known as Gore-McCain after its principal sponsors, Gore, then a senator from Tennessee, and Republican Senator John McCain, of Arizona. The law was rooted in concerns about Russian sales to Iran of some of the same weapons that the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement expressly allowed to be delivered.

McCain said this month that he was unaware of the deal that Gore struck with Chernomyrdin, which was codified in a document stamped "Secret" and signed in Moscow on June 30, 1995. McCain said a "strong case can be made" that the Russian delivery of arms, especially the submarine, should have triggered sanctions against Moscow under the provisions of the Gore-McCain law.

"If the administration has acquiesced in the sale, then I believe they have violated both the intent and the letter of the law," he said.

How Else to Get Results?

Gore's chief foreign policy adviser, Leon Fuerth, said the deliveries were not subject to sanctions because they did not meet the 1992 act's definition of "advanced conventional weapons" and did not significantly change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. But, he said, Gore brandished the threat as leverage to induce the Russians to sign the agreement, in part to learn more about what arms Moscow was sending to Tehran.

"We deliberately used the Gore-McCain law as a fulcrum to negotiate an understanding with Russia to put constraints on their exports to Iran," Fuerth said, by setting a cut-off date of Dec. 31, 1999.

Strengthening the lever was the submarine being supplied, the third of three Kilo-class subs that Russia sold to Iran. The sub was of particular concern to American policy-makers because it can be hard to detect and could pose a threat to oil tankers or American warships in the gulf.

Gore and McCain specifically cited the submarine and its deadly long-range torpedoes as one reason the 1992 nonproliferation act was needed, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Fuerth acknowledged that Russia had failed to live up to its promise to cease deliveries by the end of last year. "We have indicated we are not satisfied with a unilateral decision by the Russians to modify the terms of this understanding," he said.

Critics in Congress who have become aware of the 1995 deal, conceived in secrecy and at best only partly successful in achieving its goals, said it is symptomatic of flaws in Gore's approach to handling relations with Russia.

President Bill Clinton entrusted his vice president with an extraordinary degree of authority to manage one of the most important accounts in American diplomacy. Gore used that authority to pursue a broad agenda on issues from arms control to the environment to cooperation in space.

Much of that work was carried out in a channel known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, which was established in 1993 and which met twice a year until Boris Yeltsin dismissed Chernomyrdin in March 1998. Gore has cited the work of the commission as among his signal achievements as vice president and also an important part of his resume for the presidency.

Some critics in Congress, as well as Texas Governor George W. Bush's foreign policy advisers, say that Gore placed too much faith in his close personal relationship with Chernomyrdin, and that this led Gore to turn a blind eye to strong evidence of corruption by Chernomyrdin and associates, who appear to have profited handsomely from the rapid privatization of Soviet state enterprises.

Bush himself touched on this criticism during his debate Wednesday night with Gore when he said in a discussion of Washington's world role:

"Take Russia, for example. We went into Russia, we said here's some IMF money. It ended up in Viktor Chernomyrdin's pocket, and others. And yet we played like there was reform." (Chernomyrdin has threatened to sue Bush for slander, and the International Monetary Fund has also challenged Bush's account.)

The vice president and his advisers respond that the Gore-Chernomyrdin channel produced scores of agreements on a wide range of topics in part because of the strong bond between the men. Gore was fully aware of the allegations of corruption against Chernomyrdin, Fuerth said, but he also believed that the prime minister was dedicated to reform and had the clout to cut through the bureaucracy.

"How else do you talk to leaders about difficult issues unless you have developed a relationship with them?" Fuerth asked. "The bureaucratic approach can take you only so far."

The vice president's office has produced a catalog of Gore's achievements in Russia policy: the removal of nuclear weapons from Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan, trade deals on steel and poultry, diversion of Russian weapons scientists to peaceful pursuits, increased cooperation on corruption and money laundering, joint efforts on the international space station.

But critics respond that Gore's eagerness to pile up agreements led, in some cases, to bad deals.

For example, E. Wayne Merry, the former director of the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, said in congressional hearings earlier this year that the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission had required hundreds of hours of busywork to pad its list of achievements, thus racking up piles upon piles of "taxpayer-supplied evidence of American goodwill regardless of Russian performance, honesty or even desires."

And the 1995 accord, which essentially exempted Russia from American sanctions on arms deliveries to Iran, emboldened Moscow to ignore other agreements, particularly on sales of missile and nuclear technology to Iran, according to Gordon Oehler, who directed the Nonproliferation Center of the CIA until he retired in 1998.

"It was one more of these strange deals that Gore and Chernomyrdin had that were kept from people," said Oehler, now a vice president with the Science Applications International Corp. in La Jolla, California. "If this had been disclosed to Congress, the committees would have gone berserk, absolutely. But the larger problem is, if you have these under-the-table deals that give the Russians permission to do these things, it gives the signal that it's OK to do other things."

'Strictly Confidential'

The 1995 arms agreement between Gore and Chernomyrdin was just one of more than a dozen during a three-day meeting in Moscow, the fifth session of the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission, but it was not, however, included in a list of the meeting's accomplishments released by the White House.

Still, the men mentioned it in passing at a news conference at the end of their meeting. Chernomyrdin said the Iran accord was the product of "difficult and lengthy talks." Gore indicated that deliveries of conventional arms to Iran would end within a few years.

"This is significant, very significant," Gore said at the news conference. "I would say that this has been resolved in a specific, mutually agreed fashion that does not leave any uncertainty or open ends that would create problems in the future."

But no specific reference was made to a 12-paragraph document the men had signed, where the final paragraph reads, "This aide-memoire, as well as the attached annexes, will remain strictly confidential."

Such undertakings between executive branch officials do not carry the force of law or treaty, which require legislative ratification; either party can unilaterally withdraw from executive agreements without notice or penalty, an aide to Gore said.

A copy of the aide-memoire and related classified documents were provided to The New York Times by a government official concerned about the proliferation of Russian arms to Iran.

Administration officials briefed Congress on the outlines of the aide-memoire in closed hearings in July 1995 but did not disclose its details, specifically the American promise not to seek sanctions as a result of the arms deliveries.

The Gore-McCain law provides for waivers of its penalties, but the administration did not seek a waiver from Congress because, in its view, the types and numbers of military hardware Russia planned to send did not cross the threshold of sanctionable items.

The older contracts for conventional weapons that Russia was allowed to fulfill dated to 1989 and were intended to help Iran rearm after the devastating Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88.

A classified annex specifies the weapons Russia was committed to supply to Iran: one Kilo-class diesel-powered submarine, 160 T-72 tanks, 600 armored personnel carriers, numerous anti-ship mines, cluster bombs and a variety of long-range guided torpedoes and other munitions for the submarine and the tanks. Russia had already provided Iran with fighter aircraft, surface-to-air missiles and other armored vehicles.

The weapons are not the top of the Russian lines, but they are among the best in the region and bolstered a military force in Iran that continues to grow in quality and quantity.

Russia was to sign no new arms contracts with Iran and was to deliver no weapons other than those specified.

The United States, for its part, would "take appropriate steps to avoid any penalties to Russia that might otherwise arise under domestic law with respect to the completion of the transfers," the document states.

The United States also said it would help Russia join international arms-trading organizations and would take steps to remove Russia from the list of countries ineligible to receive American arms or technical assistance.

The United States would also help Russia's weapons industry to find customers. And the United States would also ensure that its own customers in the Middle East would not transfer American-made weapons to countries on the borders of Russia. Moscow was, however, concerned that Saudi Arabia and other the Middle Eastern buyers of American arms were sending some on to Islamic fundamentalists in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union.

Members of Congress have repeatedly complained about Russian arms shipments to Iran and demanded that the administration seek sanctions against Moscow.

In June 1993 McCain, alarmed at reports that Russia was delivering Kilo-class submarines to Iran without a forceful response from the administration, introduced amendments to Gore-McCain to stiffen sanctions against Russia for such sales. The amendments failed.

Because of frustration with the administration's apparent unwillingness to penalize Russia, Congress amended Gore-McCain in 1996. The new law required sanctions for any supplier of arms to nations that sponsor terrorism, not just weapons sales that upset regional stability, as specified in the 1992 law. But the new law has not been invoked, administration officials said, because sanctions laws cannot be applied retroactively.

From 1997 on, members of the House Armed Services Committee on several occasions questioned Pentagon and State Department officials about the submarine and why the administration was not taking stronger measures to stop delivery.

And just last week, Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas and chairman of the Near East and South Asia subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing that the administration had failed to inform Congress of confidential deals with Russia and had looked the other way as Russia sent significant quantities of arms to Iran and elsewhere.

He said Russia has blatantly violated the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement and other pacts and continues to be a major sponsor of Iran's arms buildup.

"You've seemed to conclude your own sidebar agreements and the development continues to take place with alarming speed and progress," Brownback lectured Robert Einhorn, the State Department's top nonproliferation official. "The problem has grown decidedly worse, and the world is a far more dangerous place because of that."

'Maintaining Bilateral Ties'

Einhorn acknowledged that the United States has expressed its "frustration and disappointment" to Moscow over the continued sales to Tehran. But he said the extent of the sales was classified and could not be discussed in an open hearing.

In January Secretary of State Albright sent a classified message to Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov complaining that Moscow was not abiding by terms of the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement. Russia has not provided a required accounting of the arms shipped to Iran and those still in the pipeline, she complained, and she referred to a statement by Ivanov that it would take a decade for Russia to complete its weapons contracts with Iran.

She said the administration had lived up to its end of the bargain, and she warned, "Continued transfers to Iran could be subject to sanctions under relevant U.S. laws."

"Russia's unilateral decision to continue delivering arms to Iran beyond the Dec. 31 deadline will unnecessarily complicate our relationship," Albright wrote.

The same week that Albright's message was sent to Ivanov, Russia delivered the first of five heavy military helicopters to Tehran, according to Itar-Tass. The helicopters are not on the list of permitted military deliveries contained in the annex to the Gore-Chernomyrdin deal.

The day after Albright's message, Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev met with a top Iranian security official and pledged to maintain Russia's military ties to Tehran, according to Interfax.

"Russia intends to maintain the dynamics of its bilateral ties with Iran," Sergeyev said, "in the military, military-technical, scientific-technical and energy fields."