In two recent high-level meetings in Moscow, U.S. officials pressed Russia to stop nuclear and missile cooperation with Iran.
John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, met with Russian Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Georgy Mamedov on February 19. Although the talks focused on announced reductions in U.S. and Russian offensive nuclear forces, Bolton also raised the issue of Russian assistance to Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Calling the issue “a very high priority” for the administration, Bolton acknowledged that the two sides “had a disagreement about the extent of [Russia’s] involvement” in those areas. He further questioned how “any Russian citizen [could] see any benefit whatever in a nuclear-equipped, ballistic missile-capable Iran.” In a February 11 interview with Arms Control Today, Bolton cited Russia’s proliferation behavior as one of the top priorities for the Bush administration, just after missile defenses and offensive nuclear reductions. (See interview.)
Earlier this year, Assistant Secretary of State John Wolf also met with Mamedov in Moscow to discuss the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles, as well as export control issues. The January 21-22 meetings represented the first round of formal U.S.-Russian nonproliferation consultations, a new biannual forum established during the November 2001 presidential summit in Crawford, Texas.
In the January discussions, the United States and Russia again locked horns on whether Russia’s continued assistance to Iran’s nuclear program and other “military technological cooperation” posed a proliferation risk. Russia is helping Iran build two civilian nuclear power reactors at Bushehr—assistance the United States says will help Iran build nuclear weapons—and the United States sanctioned several Russian entities in 1999 for providing ballistic-missile assistance to Iran.
According to a Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs press statement, Russian assistance is carried out “in strict compliance” with export controls and international nonproliferation accords. In a January 30 interview with the U.S. Information Agency, Wolf said that Washington “had good success with Russia” regarding export controls and noted the two sides are working to expand that success.
Given the fundamental disagreement between Washington and Moscow on the issue of Russia’s nuclear and missile proliferation to Iran, a Russian source stated that it was unlikely that the two sides would resolve the issue unless it is addressed at the presidential level. Presidents George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin are scheduled to hold a summit in St. Petersburg in May to discuss strategic stability issues.
Iran’s Nuclear Progress
The increased focus on Russian-Iranian proliferation follows Bush’s January 29 State of the Union address, in which he referred to Iran, Iraq, and North Korea as an “axis of evil” intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction. (See Bush Labels North Korea, Iran, Iraq an 'Axis of Evil'.) Lending urgency to the president’s warnings, senior officials from the United States and Israel recently expressed concern that Iran was only years away from being able to develop nuclear weapons.
On February 6, CIA Director George Tenet testified before the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence that Iran “may be able to indigenously produce enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon by late this decade.” Tenet went on to add that acquisition of such material from foreign sources “could cut years from this estimate.”
In an address in the United States that same day, Israeli Defense Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer repeated Israel’s longstanding assessment that Israel expects Tehran to have a nuclear capability by 2005 and that it is receiving assistance in this endeavor from Russia and North Korea. Since 1997, the CIA has repeatedly warned that Iran is pursuing an indigenous nuclear weapons development capability, although it has never predicted a date by which Iran could potentially acquire a nuclear weapon.