Russian-Iran Ties Remain Issue At Gore-Chernomyrdin Meeting

THE CLINTON administration's ongoing campaign to convince Russia to sever its civil nuclear ties with Iran was rebuffed once again by Moscow during the latest session of the Gore Chernomyrdin Commission September 22 23. Russian officials also rejected, at least publicly, continuing U.S. and Israeli claims that Iran's ballistic missile programs are advancing with the help of illicit Russian technology transfers, although Moscow has agreed to continue a high profile joint investigation into the alleged transfers that utilizes sensitive U.S. intelligence.

The administration is under increasing pressure from congressional critics to adopt a tougher stance toward Moscow for its continuing nuclear relationship with Tehran and its inability, or unwillingness, to control missile related exports by the country's vast military industrial complex. On September 30, a bipartisan group of nearly 100 senators and representatives sent a letter to President Clinton stating that the Russian transfers pose "a direct threat to U.S. security," and that Congress is "moving to mandate a cutoff of assistance to Russia if these dangerous activities do not cease." The letter was drafted by Senator Jon Kyl (R AZ) and Representative Jane Harman (D CA).

In 1995, Russia signed a $800 million contract with Iran to complete the construction of a 1,000 megawatt (electric) light water reactor at the Bushehr nuclear complex on the Persian Gulf coast, where the German company Seimens had suspended work on two reactors following the 1979 revolution. Iran, a signatory of the nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, reportedly has already paid Russia $80 million for the project, which is scheduled to be completed by 2001. Installation work at the reactor site may begin in mid 1998.

Despite the fact the facility will be under safeguards, the United States has long pressed the Yeltsin administration to pull out of the Bushehr project, arguing that any support for Iran's civil nuclear power program will indirectly assist Tehran's covert drive to acquire nuclear weapons. During their meeting in Moscow, Vice President Al Gore and Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, the commission's co chairmen, held extensive discussions on the Bushehr project but Moscow again refused to give ground.

The latest controversy involving alleged Russian missile related transfers emerged in January, when the White House was informed of an Israeli intelligence report identifying several Russian entities that had aided Iranian programs aimed at developing intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Since the Israeli intelligence report first surfaced, Russian officials have repeatedly denied claims that Russia is assisting Iran's nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programs. Gore raised the issue of Russian missile related transfers at the previous Gore Chernomyrdin Commission meeting in February, as did Clinton during his March summit with Yeltsin in Helsinki.

In Moscow, Gore and Chernomyrdin were briefed by Frank Wisner, the president's special envoy on the missile issue and former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and India, who is heading the joint investigation, which was launched in August, along with Yuri Koptev, director of the Russian Space Agency. Interestingly, Koptev was identified in the Israeli intelligence report as one of only two senior Russian officials directly linked to Iran's missile programs. Wisner and Koptev are scheduled to meet again in early November.

Following his meeting with Chernomyrdin, Gore said, "[O]ne of the new lessons of this report [by Wisner and Koptev] is that it is obvious that there is a vigorous effort by Iran to obtain the technologies that it needs to build a ballistic missile and to build nuclear weapons." Gore, who also met with President Boris Yeltsin during his Moscow visit, said "there is no doubt in my mind" that the two countries "share the same concern" about the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery. Russian officials, however, continued to deny the supply link. At a September 26 Kremlin news conference with French President Jacques Chirac, Yeltsin said, "There is nothing further from the truth. I again and again categorically refute such rumors."

According to the Israeli assessment, which was first reported in The Washington Times on September 10 and the gist of which has largely been confirmed by U.S. intelligence agencies, several Russian entities have provided Iran with key missile technology and know how. The named entities include the Russian Space Agency; Rosvoorouzhenie, the country's principal arms exporting agency, and its unidentified aerospace director; the Bauman Institute; NPO Trud; and Polyus. The Israeli report also identified China's state owned Great Wall Industries Corporation as a supplier.

According to Israeli intelligence, Iran is developing two IRBMs¾referred to as the Shahab 3 and the Shahab 4—that are based on North Korea's 1,000 kilometer range Nodong missile. Iran reportedly has provided financial support for North Korea's missile development programs, and according to one Israeli intelligence report has received at least a dozen of the missiles from Pyong yang. The Shahab 3's estimated range of 1,300 to 1,500 kilometers would put parts of Israel within its reach, and its estimated payload capability of 750 kilograms would allow the delivery of a nuclear warhead. Reports suggest this missile could enter production as early as 1999. The Shahab 4 has a reported range of 2,000 kilometers with a payload of 1,000 kilograms. Some observers believe that the Shahab 4 is based on Russia's SS 4 IRBM, the technology for which Russia has been accused of transferring to Tehran. Gore raised the SS 4 issue at the February meeting of the commission, but Chernomyrdin denied any such transfers had taken place.

During his September 23 press conference with Gore, Chernomyrdin reiterated Russia's commitment to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the 29 nation export control forum which Moscow formally joined in 1995. "We are not diverging from our commitments and even if somebody wishes to diverge from these commitments, they will not have their way," Chernomyrdin said. "There is no question of any missile deliveries."

Should the Clinton administration determine that the missile related transfers took place, the Russian entities could only be sanctioned under U.S. laws enforcing the MTCR if Russia, as an MTCR member, failed to take judicial or other enforcement action against the entities after confirming the violations had occurred. The sanctions, if applied, would bar the entities from doing any business with the U.S. government, as well as competing for contracts for future work.

The Russian Space Agency, in particular, is under close scrutiny because of its extensive contractual ties to U.S. agencies. In the last several years the U.S. government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the Russian space program, funding that may become the target of congressional critics of the administration's approach to ending Moscow's nuclear and missile related ties with Iran.