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May 19, 2021
U.S., Russia Take New Steps to Control Technology Transfers to Iran
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March 1998

By Howard Diamond

With the threat of congressionally imposed sanctions on Russia hanging over their discussions, Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin agreed to increase bilateral efforts to prevent Russian ballistic missile and other types of dangerous technology from leaking to Iran. Meeting in Washington March 10 and 11 for the 10th meeting of the so-called Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission (GCC), the two leaders agreed to deploy "joint teams" to monitor the implementation of the "catch-all" executive order issued by Chernomyrdin in January to block the transfer of technology for weapons of mass destruction not specifically regulated in Russian laws. (See ACT, January/February 1998.)

Gore told reporters, "By working together on export controls on weapons, weapons materials, and dual-use goods, I believe we can—and we will—strengthen existing international non-proliferation regimes and promote regional stability." Gore also described Russia's policy on non-proliferation as "exactly correct."

The Clinton administration has been pressing Moscow to crack down on transfers of Russian ballistic missile expertise and technology to Iran since January 1997. CIA Director George Tenet testified in January that due to acquisition of Russian technology, the estimated deployment dates of Iran's two medium-range missiles in development, the 1,300-kilometer Shahab-3 and the 2,000-kilometer Shahab-4, have been moved up from 10 years or less, to only two or three years.

Since July 1997, Washington has tried to improve cooperation with Moscow in preventing missile technology transfers by sharing intelligence in meetings between U.S. special envoy Frank Wisner and Yuri Koptev, chief of the Russian Space Agency. Wisner's fifth meeting with Koptev took place one week before the March GCC meeting and included Robert Gallucci (negotiator of the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework), who is replacing Wisner.

Although U.S. officials claim the intelligence-swapping sessions together with increased Russian enforcement efforts are making a difference, reports of on-going cooperation between Russian firms—and allegedly even Moscow's intelligence service—and Iran's missile development program continue to surface. Moscow's Federal Security Service was reported by The Washington Times in February o be involved in arranging exchanges of Russian and Iranian missile experts. A subsequent Washington Post story on March 23, citing Russian sources, reported that Moscow will end the intelligence service's role in procuring Russian missile specialists for Tehran.

In addition to providing information through the Wisner-Koptev mechanism, Washington has pushed Moscow to adopt the "catch-all" controls issued by Chernomyrdin in January. Moscow had previously claimed that the gaps in Russian export control laws provided Iran and Russian firms with loopholes they used to export sensitive missile technologies.

The new "catch-all" measure requires Russian businesses to cooperate with Moscow in preventing sales of material and technology where there is reason to believe the sale could lead to proliferation of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons or ballistic missiles. U.S. officials have praised the "catch-all" decree as an important step in the right direction, but have insisted that its true value will depend on its implementation.

U.S. concern about how the decree is put into effect spurred the new arrangement on "joint work pursuant to export controls." The latest Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement will allow U.S. officials to be involved in Russian efforts to improve their export control system. Specifically, Washington is planning to share software and hardware used in the United States to prevent proliferation-sensitive exports.

While continuing to insist it has done nothing wrong, Moscow faces two substantial incentives to cooperate with Washington. First, Congress is near passing the "Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act," which would effectively bar U.S.-Russian cooperation on the $21 billion international space station and impose penalties on Russian firms that have been linked to Tehran's missile program. The Journal of Commerce reported on February 27 that, at the request of the CIA, a provision was added to the sanctions act that exempts from sanctions any foreign entity that "has engaged in a transfer or transaction, or made an attempt, on behalf of, or in concert with, the government of the United States." The sanctions measure, which passed the House on a voice vote in November and has 82 Senate co-sponsors, has been held up in the Senate in order to give the Clinton administration time to make progress at the March Gore-Chernomyrdin meeting.

The Senate's forbearance, however, may not last. Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Ben Nighthorse Cambell (R-CO), together with 45 colleagues, sent Gore a letter prior to his meeting with Chernomyrdin specifying steps they expect Russia to take in order to hold off the sanctions bill. The senators' letter called for a public campaign by Moscow against transfers of dangerous technology, the arrest of Russians and Iranians involved in such deals, and passage of new export control laws by the Duma.

In addition to the stick of sanctions, U.S. officials are also holding up the carrot of increasing the number of foreign satellites that can be launched on Russian rockets. In 1996, Moscow and Washington agreed to limits on the use of Russian boosters to protect U.S. space companies. Since then, U.S. firms have embraced international consortiums as a model for the space industry and are now pushing to increase the use of Russian launchers for commercial satellites. Last year, 18 of Russia's 48 satellite launches carried payloads for U.S. firms, each worth $60 million to $100 million. Just prior to the GCC meeting, U.S. officials briefed reporters on Washington's willingness to reconsider the quotas on Russian launch vehicles, but cautioned that progress on the space issue would depend on Russia's ability to control transfers of missile technology to Iran.