Senate Approves Sanctions Legislation Aimed at Russian-Iranian Missile Cooperation

May 1998

By Howard Diamond

Signaling its dissatisfaction with the Clinton administration's efforts to get Moscow to rein in transfers of ballistic missile technology to Iran, the Senate on May 22 passed the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act by a vote of 90-4. In the weeks prior to the Senate vote, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and national security advisor Samuel Berger warned of a presidential veto due to the measure's low evidentiary standard for imposing sanctions, and the anticipated negative effect on diplomatic efforts underway with Russia.

The House of Representatives adopted a nearly identical version of the bill on a voice vote in November 1997, and will now take up the Senate's version of the bill. The key difference between the House and Senate measures is an amendment by Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) that made the bill's provisions effective for acts occurring after January 22, 1998, when former Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin issued a "catch-all" decree to provide additional control over proliferation-sensitive exports. Before Chernomyrdin issued the January decree, Russian officials had claimed that their ability to prevent technology transfers was limited by the absence of sufficient legal authority. The previous effective date in the sanctions bill was August 1995, which corresponded to Russia's entry into the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Moscow has been under pressure from the United States to control transfers of ballistic missile technology to Iran since January 1997, when reports of Russian involvement first emerged. Subsequently, news reports based on leaked intelligence have alleged that Russian firms have provided Tehran with key technology and technical assistance for missile engines, aerodynamic problem solving, wind-tunnel testing, special materials and metals, guidance system components, and solid rocket fuel development. The Russian Space Agency (RSA) and Moscow's Federal Security Service have also been accused of aiding in technology transfers, but U.S. officials have cleared the RSA of any wrong-doing.

Eight days before the Senate vote, Russian President Boris Yeltsin issued two new executive orders detailing how the January decree will be put into effect. The first of Yeltsin's decrees requires the creation of an export control unit in all Russian businesses dealing in nuclear or missile technology, and lays out procedures—including a list of so-called "red-flags"—to guide exporters on how to avoid illicit buyers. The second decree gives the RSA overall control and responsibility for Russia's policy on missile technology, including the ability to block sales by other government agencies and institutes to suspect end-users.

Russia's Foreign Ministry attacked the U.S. legislation on May 25, describing the measure as an attempt "to hamper legitimate trade and economic ties with Iran" under the cover of non-proliferation. Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeniy Primakov warned on May 12 that if the United States imposed sanctions on Russian firms, chances for winning Duma ratification of START II would be set back.


The Legislation

The sanctions legislation requires the president to make a series of reports listing entities for which there is "credible evidence" showing assistance or attempted assistance in transferring ballistic missile components or technology to Iran. Unlike all other U.S. export control and non-proliferation measures, the Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act does not require an entity to be aware of its involvement in prohibited trade to be in jeopardy of punishment. Although sanctions on the entities listed in the president's reports are automatic, the president can waive the sanctions if he certifies that doing so is "essential to the national security," or if he produces additional information proving a party's innocence.

Sanctions under the new measure can also be avoided if an entity is being punished under another U.S. non-proliferation law or if the entity engaged in proscribed actions on behalf of the U.S. government. Sanctioned entities are ineligible for at least two years to either import dual-use or munitions list items, or to receive any form of U.S. government assistance. Additionally, the sanctions bill includes the implementation legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which will make a veto decision more difficult for the president. (See "CWC Implementing Legislation...".) Without passing the CWC legislation, the United States will be in technical non-compliance with its treaty obligations.

Tehran is believed to be developing two intermediate-range ballistic missiles: the 1,300-kilometer-range Shahab-3, based on the North Korean Nodong missile, and the 2,000-kilometer-range Shahab-4, based on the Soviet SS-4. The United States also believes that Iran is intent on acquiring nuclear weapons and is using civil nuclear technology as both a cover for illicit procurement activity and as a training ground for its nuclear specialists. Washington has persuaded China and Ukraine to end their civil nuclear commerce with Iran—which Tehran is entitled to as a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)—but has been unable to similarly convince Moscow.

Russia agreed in 1995 to complete for $850 million a 1,000-megawatt (electric) nuclear reactor in Iran at Bushehr that was left unfinished by the German company Siemens following Iran's Islamic revolution in 1979. Under pressure from the Clinton administration, in May 1995 Yeltsin agreed to limit the scope of Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran to exclude provision of additional reactors, assistance with uranium mining or enrichment, and technology for spent fuel reprocessing.

In March, however, Russian and Iranian officials reached an agreement in principle to build two additional reactors at Bushehr, which Moscow believes are allowable within its 1995 commitment. According to the March 7 New York Times, work on the additional reactors would not begin until the first reactor is completed in 2001. Tehran also agreed to give Russia greater control over the construction at Bushehr, which has been plagued by engineering and financial delays.

On April 6, Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeniy Adamov announced he would urge Russia's government to support a 1996 agreement with Iran to build a research reactor using low-enriched uranium fuel. Adamov suggested in light of signs of improvement in U.S.-Iranian relations, delay could result in Washington stealing the research reactor deal.

A delegation of Iranian officials led by Gholam Reza Agazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization met with Adamov in mid-May to discuss accelerating progress on the Bushehr reactor project. Adamov was cited by Radio Free Europe as saying during a May 11 interview that he had no doubt that Iran is trying to acquire the potential to produce nuclear weapons, but he insisted that the technology being transferred by Russia could not be misused for that purpose.