By Alex Wagner
Russian officials confirmed September 21 that they would freeze shipment of a laser isotope separator to Iran, following repeated requests by the Clinton administration, which believes Tehran could use the technology to produce weapons-grade enriched uranium.
Yuri Bespalko, head of public relations at the Russian Atomic Energy Ministry, conceded that because of U.S. concerns "a decision has been made to give the issue more thorough consideration," according to Interfax, the independent Russian news agency. However, Bespalko said that pending review of the laser technology by U.S. and Russian commissions, the deal could still go through as planned.
According to David Stockwell, spokesman for the National Security Council, President Bill Clinton was notified in early September that Russia had agreed to freeze the laser transfer. Since July, the president has reportedly raised the prospective laser sale at least twice with Russian President Vladimir Putin: at the July Group of Eight summit in Okinawa, Japan and on September 6 at the UN Millennium summit in New York.
Boris Yatsenko, director of Microtechnology at the Yefremov Scientific Research Institute, the laboratory scheduled to sell Iran the laser, told Interfax that the laser, which he said is 15-20 watts, is intended "only for medical, industrial, and scientific purposes." At 15-20 watts, the laser would fall below the 40-watt threshold requiring control by the Nuclear Suppliers Group—a group of 34 countries (including the United States and Russia) that have agreed to restrict the export of nuclear and dual-use equipment that could be used for weapons purposes.
Laser separation of uranium appears to be too expensive to be economically competitive for commercial production. In 1973, the United States began attempting to develop a cost-effective laser. However, the program was abandoned in June 1999 after an investment of nearly $2 billion.
The United States Enrichment Corporation, the private nuclear fuel provider that inherited the U.S. government's laser program, concluded that although the laser enrichment technology worked, the returns were not sufficient to sustain it on a commercial basis.
Despite the Clinton administration's concerns, some U.S. nuclear experts maintain that obtaining low-powered laser isotope separation technology would not substantially enhance Iran's capability to produce nuclear weapons. It could, however, help advance Iranian scientists' research and development on the use of lasers for uranium enrichment.
The U.S. intelligence community has long maintained that Tehran has been diverting nuclear material and technology from its civilian programs despite the fact that Iran is a member in good standing of the International Atomic Energy Agency with all of its declared nuclear facilities safeguarded. At a September 21 hearing, A. Norman Schindler, deputy director of the CIA's Nonproliferation Center, told a Senate Governmental Affairs subcommittee that Iran is "seeking nuclear-related equipment, material, and technical expertise from a variety of foreign sources, especially in Russia" and has developed "an elaborate system of covert military and civilian organizations to support its acquisition goals."
The United States has been concerned for years about Russian-Iranian nuclear cooperation, especially since a 1995 announcement that Russia would help Iran complete the construction of two nuclear power reactors near Bushehr. In January 1999, such concern led the Clinton administration to impose sanctions on three Russian companies for sharing nuclear and missile technology with Iran. (See ACT, January/February 1999.)