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Jerusalem Letter / Viewpoints

No. 494     12 Adar II 5763 / 16 March 2003

Russia and Iran's Nuclear Program

Uzi Arad


  • Iran is much closer to acquiring a military nuclear capability than supposed, due to its unexpected progress in developing uranium enrichment facilities using centrifuge technology. By admitting that it has a uranium enrichment program, Iran is basically telling the world that it indeed has military intentions.

  • Since the mid-1990s, there has been a continuous stream of leakage of Russian technology, technicians, materiel, contracts, and activities to Iran from some 20 companies, institutes, universities, and engineering firms in the two critical domains of missile capability and nuclear development.

  • The Russians secretly negotiated additional nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran, with full knowledge that they were assisting Iran in its military programs. The result is an Iran that is within a short distance of having a first-generation, nuclear military capability coupled with a delivery capability.

  • We cannot be confident that reform in Iran will eliminate the strategic threat to Israel. Even the moderates are extremely problematic on a number of issues. Iran's attitude toward the West is basically hostile and the regime shows no signs of any sharp policy changes.



Last year, President Bush defined the new threats to the U.S. as the axis of evil: Iraq, North Korea, and Iran. Secretary of State Powell noted that all three have common denominators of hostile governments, totalitarian regimes, and the pursuit of non-conventional weapons capabilities, specifically, nuclear capabilities.

During the year since the American announcement, these countries have accelerated their non-conventional programs, almost defiantly and openly. In this respect, even North Korea is a Middle East problem because with its past links with Middle East countries, there is great potential for proliferation of these technologies and capabilities from that country.


Iranian Nukes Closer Than Supposed

Recently, Secretary Powell announced that Iran was much closer to acquiring a military nuclear capability than supposed, due to its unexpected progress in developing uranium enrichment facilities using centrifuge technology. However, by admitting that it has a uranium enrichment program, Iran was basically telling the world that it indeed has military intentions.

Until recently, everyone was focused on the Iranian reactors in Bushehr. Reactors by themselves, and especially power reactors, are not the route to a military capability. The Bushehr complex fulfilled a number of purposes: To have a nuclear infrastructure, a nuclear community is needed of physicists, technicians, chemists, scientists, and engineers who work in the field. Having such a facility justifies the training and presence of such a community. Such a facility offers a useful and convenient facade to serve as a cover for activities that have other purposes. Bushehr also served to deflect attention as the real events were taking place elsewhere. Iran has dozens of nuclear facilities - some secret, some less so - affiliated with various government ministries and universities. In some of those facilities there may be efforts to develop designs for weapons and a real military program.

In the early 1990s, Iran received assistance for its nuclear programs from a variety of sources. One leading country was China, which was providing assistance on a number of points that could have helped Iran to acquire fissile material for nuclear weapons. Vigorous American diplomacy in 1997 stopped this activity, but only after some damage had been caused and some materiel was received and used by the Iranians.

The possibility of Pakistani assistance to Iran in this realm is also feared. Pakistan is a neighboring country, it has nuclear capability and technology, and it needs the money. Iran is in need of the technology and it possesses the money. All the ingredients of a deal were always there.

However, Russia is the country that has caused the most concern in this regard over the years, and has been the focus of most of America's containment diplomacy. Ironically, as long as Russia was controlled by the Soviet Union, it was extremely effective in its cooperation on nonproliferation. When Russia became more democratic, "free market" economic forces became more manifest, and Russia today is a major headache with regard to the issue of Iran. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a continuous stream of leakage of Russian technology, technicians, materiel, contracts, and activities in the two critical domains of missile capability and nuclear development.


Russian Technology for Missile Development

Iran turned first to North Korea for long-range missile capability, but with Russia's vast experience and formidable know-how, it was just a matter of time until private or semi-private Russian entities came to be employed to export these technologies to Iran. Indeed, Iran's development of ever-longer-range missiles took shape thanks to Russian participation in the development of the Shihab-3 missile, which has a range that can reach Israel and the entire Middle East.

The Iranian missile program has developed steadily over the years, and these missiles are not being developed to carry conventional warheads. This is simply not cost-effective. In addition, the fact that Iran was energetically pursuing a missile capability of ever-extending parameters was an indication that it would have something to deliver.

The Russian presence in the Iranian program became so disturbing that the United States decided to make it a high-priority issue. At Israel's request and also because of American interests, sanctions were placed on Russia to force it to tighten its export controls and to take action to prevent weapons technology leakage.

The Russians engaged the Americans very intensively during those years, with Frank Wisner on the American side, and Yuri Kaptev (head of Rosaviakosmos, the Russian Space Agency) on the Russian side. At certain points the Russians denied their involvement or explained that this was illicit Russian activity by private entrepreneurs and that they would take action against it. At times they would challenge the Americans to "show us the evidence," forcing the Americans to reveal their sources, which they were reluctant to do since, sometimes, the Russians acted against the sources rather than against those working with the Iranians.

The result is a steady leakage of missile technology from Russia to Iran from some 20 companies, institutes, universities, and engineering firms, probably driven by economic considerations.


Does Iran Threaten Israel?

An internal Israeli debate took place about Iranian capabilities during the early 1990s within Israeli defense circles. One group, called the "Iranian apologists," asked why Israel should bother so much with Iran, which is not an Arab country and has a built-in rivalry with the Arab world. Israel had a strategic relationship with Iran in the past and perhaps will pursue those ties in the future. Iran is not an inevitable threat to Israel; it has legitimate defense needs; it is surrounded by nuclear weapons in Pakistan to the south and India and Russia in the north. Iraq to the west had invaded it once, and was certainly pursuing nuclear capabilities. Iran's orientation, it was argued, would be primarily defensive, and it would confine this capability for deterrence purposes to a parameter that would cover those threats and not beyond.

The other group, which included myself, tended to be more skeptical, saying that we have to wait and see. We fear that Iran may have larger ambitions. The real telltale sign was when Iran acquired the Shihab-3 and the Nodong missiles - long-range missiles that could reach Israel.


Nuclear Aid to Iran is Official Russian Policy

The matter is completely different in the nuclear field. Here it is the official Russian Atomic Energy Ministry - the Minatom - a very powerful ministry led by extremely powerful people, that is doing all the nuclear business in Iran as part of official Russian policy.

Under the Clinton administration there were negotiations to try to curb the extent of Russian involvement in these activities. The problem was that the Russians insisted that they were not doing anything improper, that the Bushehr deal was very important to them economically, that Iran was a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and so there was nothing wrong in working with Iran. Therefore, the Russians defied the Americans and continue to be involved in the Bushehr facilities.

What has not really come to light in any significant way is the fact that the Russians had officially and secretly negotiated additional nuclear cooperation agreements with Iran. The reason for secrecy was because the Russians had full knowledge that they were assisting Iran in its military programs, as well. Some of the issues negotiated secretly involved exactly how to deceive the world as to the true purposes of the program, and how to make things appear differently than they really are.

This demonstrates a very complex game between Russia and America and between Russia and Iran. There is no way one could say that the Russians had acted in good faith. The result of years of extensive cooperation between Russia and Iran in the nuclear and missile domains is an Iran that is within a short distance of having a first-generation, nuclear military capability coupled with a delivery capability. The fact that Russia knowingly assisted this development and did so by deceiving others is very troubling.

At the same time that Iran is a signatory to the NPT and enjoys the benefits of membership in the NPT regime and in the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran violates the NPT on a large scale, and everybody knows it, and nothing happens.


Do We Wait for Reform to Change Iran?

Much hope has been placed on possible political change in Iran. For years we have been hearing about moderates in Iran and about a mellowing of revolutionary zeal. The implied message was, "Iran may be on the way to having nuclear weapons, but the regime will eventually become so much nicer, like Pakistan, if not France - a country in possession of such weapons but not a terrible threat."

The difficulty with these arguments is that we don't really know which way regime change is going in Iran. I am not at all confident it is going the right way, but even if it were, when it comes to strategic threats to Israel, the threat remains irrespective of the regime unless the regime changes its orientation completely and becomes overtly friendly with no hostile aspirations. This is not likely to be the case with Iran. Even the moderates, let alone the extremists or the fundamentalists, are extremely problematic on a number of issues. The involvement of Iran in supporting terrorism is more extensive than Iraq, its subversive activities in the Middle East and outside the Middle East are deeper, its position on the Arab-Israeli issue is very harsh, and its use of the Hizballah and the Lebanese theater as a destabilizer is evident. Iran's attitude toward the West is basically hostile and is certainly not something to rely on. The regime shows no signs of any sharp changes in its policies.

How soon will Iran have nuclear weapons? Given the recent information, this will occur long before the end of the decade. Iran should soon be capable of producing fissile materials sufficient for two bombs a year. Iran is on the verge of completing the Bushehr complex that would produce plutonium, however controlled that may be. They will have about 5,000 centrifuges in operation by the end of the year, enough to steadily produce the fissile materials they need. In a very few years, the Iranians may test a nuclear bomb, or they could follow a North Korean scenario and depart from the NPT.

The same logic the Americans applied to Iraq applies to Iran. Will the Americans carry their policy to its ultimate logical conclusion? Can the U.S. do it alone? Does it have enough support? Does it have the strength? Because if the Iraqi threat is resolved by its being disarmed but Iran is left unattended, we will have done very little for Middle Eastern stability and for nonproliferation.

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Dr. Uzi Arad is Director of the Institute of Policy and Strategy (IPS) at Herzliya's Interdisciplinary Center. This Jerusalem Viewpoints is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 26 March 2003.


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