President Barack Obama on May 10 transmitted to Congress an agreement for civilian nuclear cooperation with Russia, reviving questions on Capitol Hill over Russian nuclear and missile-related assistance to Iran.
A top administration official said Russia had stopped providing such aid, but congressional staffers from both chambers and both parties questioned that assessment.
In May 2008, President George W. Bush submitted the cooperation agreement to Congress. He effectively withdrew it in September of that year, citing Russia’s military clash with Georgia the previous month. However, there also had been questions on Capitol Hill about the status of Russian assistance that could help Tehran develop a nuclear weapons capability or boost its missile development efforts.
Reps. John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) in May 2008 to examine the executive branch’s process for preparing the Nuclear Proliferation Assessment Statement (NPAS) for the U.S.-Russian agreement. Under U.S. law, the NPAS is one of the documents the president must send to Congress along with a nuclear cooperation agreement. Such pacts are known as 123 agreements, after a section of the Atomic Energy Act.
Citing the “history of [Russia’s] support for Iran’s nuclear, missile, and advanced conventional weapons programs,” Dingell and Stupak asked the GAO to determine “whether all relevant information from classified and unclassified sources was considered and fairly assessed” and “whether the NPAS conclusions are fully supported and whether there is contradictory information that was omitted which could invalidate, modify, or impair the conclusions for recommendation to approve the 123 agreement.” They asked the GAO to examine both the unclassified NPAS and its classified annex.
The GAO report, which was released in July 2009, found flaws with the NPAS process. It did not address the specific questions on Russian assistance to Iran; those issues were addressed in classified oral briefings to congressional staff, sources said at the time. (See ACT, September 2009.)
In a statement last month responding to Obama’s submittal of the agreement, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Terrorism, Nonproliferation and Trade, said it was “a mistake” to send the accord to Congress “at this time.” Russia should first commit itself to strong UN sanctions against Iran, he said. The United Nations is developing a resolution imposing a new round of sanctions on Tehran (see page 25).
Citing the GAO report, Sherman said, “Russia’s ongoing nuclear relationship with Iran also needs critical examination…. At a minimum, we need to be assured that no Russian assistance is being provided to the most sensitive aspects of Iran’s nuclear development.”
At a May 11 Center for Media and Security luncheon with reporters, Senior White House Coordinator for WMD Counterterrorism and Arms Control Gary Samore said, “As long as I’ve been in this job, there’s been no concern about Russian entities providing nuclear assistance to Iran, outside of Bushehr.”
Bushehr is the nuclear power plant that Russia built in southwestern Iran; its much-delayed start-up is now projected to take place later this year. Current UN sanctions, which ban most nuclear aid to Iran, make an exception for Bushehr.
In an interview last month, an official at the Russian embassy in Washington said Bushehr is “[t]he only project we have with [the] Iranians in [the] nuclear field.”
At the luncheon, Samore said, “Not to my knowledge has there been any assistance to the parts of the Iranian program that we’re worried about from a weapons standpoint. I think that was true of the Bush administration, but it has not been true as long as I’ve been in my job.” Samore took office in early 2009.
Factual Basis Questioned
A Republican Senate aide questioned Samore’s statement, saying in a May 28 interview that the claim of no Russian assistance is “very aggressive and probably not supportable based on facts.” He said that “it’s true there was a particular problem,” that U.S. officials discussed it with their Russian counterparts, and that “there have been claims the problem was completely resolved.” However, he said, “Based on everything I know, it’s hard to say nothing is going on in the last year and a half.” He declined to say what the “particular problem” was, citing classification restrictions.
Supporters and opponents have portrayed the resubmittal of the 123 agreement as part of the Obama administration’s effort to improve—“reset,” in the administration’s terminology—U.S. relations with Russia. The Senate aide said he supports the effort to improve relations with Russia but that it should not make officials “stop looking at ambiguous information.”
In a May 25 interview, a Sherman aide said that in light of the deficiencies that the GAO found in the process for the 2008 NPAS, “Congress needs to carefully examine the [new] NPAS’ clean bill of health for Russia with respect to Iran.”
With regard to missiles, the Senate aide and other congressional staffers following the issue cited the most recent version of the annual U.S. intelligence report to Congress on weapons of mass destruction and advanced conventional munitions. That version, which covers 2009, said, “Assistance from entities in China and North Korea, as well as assistance from Russian entities at least in the past, has helped Iran move toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles.”
A 2007 U.S. intelligence assessment that the Senate aide also cited said,
We assess that individual Russian entities continue to provide assistance to Iran’s ballistic missile programs. We judge that Russian-entity assistance, along with assistance from entities in China and North Korea, has helped Iran move toward self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles. The Russian Government has taken steps to improve controls on ballistic-missile technology, and its record of enforcement—though still mixed—has improved over the last decade.
The Senate aide said, “The statement ‘at least in the past’ [in the recent assessment] appears to suggest several possibilities regarding Russian assistance.”
Another congressional aide made a similar point, saying the difference could be that “things are really changing,” the intelligence community is having “collection issues,” or the new language is an indication of “the politics of reset.”
In response to a question about Russian missile assistance to Iran, Samore said at the May 11 luncheon that it was “a huge issue” during the Clinton administration. (Samore served in that administration.) Since then, he said, “I think the Russians have done a very good job, both at the end of the Clinton administration and then throughout the Bush administration, in cracking down on what I now think was unauthorized activities…. I think that has really been cleaned up.”
Asked if there was any current Russian assistance to Iran’s chemical or biological weapons or missile programs, Samore replied, “Not that I know of.”
In the message to Congress accompanying the 123 agreement, Obama said that “the level and scope of U.S.-Russia cooperation on Iran are sufficient to justify resubmitting” the agreement. “The Russian government has indicated its support for a new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iran and has begun to engage on specific resolution elements with P5 members in New York,” he said. The five permanent members of the Security Council, known as the P5, are China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Obama also cited a list of U.S.-Russian arms control and nonproliferation agreements over the past year. Overall, he said, “these events demonstrate significant progress in the U.S.-Russia nuclear nonproliferation relationship.”
Under the Atomic Energy Act, a 123 agreement such as the one with Russia can enter into force after 90 days of continuous session from the date of its submittal unless Congress passes a joint resolution of disapproval. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) introduced such a resolution May 20. Congress has never disapproved a 123 agreement, but in a few cases has added nonproliferation conditions.
If the current Congress ends before the 90 days have elapsed, the agreement would have to be reintroduced in the next Congress. Some observers said the 90-day clock was a factor in the administration’s decision to submit the agreement when it did.
Fortenberry and Markey also offered an amendment to the fiscal year 2011 defense authorization bill, but the House Rules Committee did not allow the amendment. The Fortenberry-Markey provision would have blocked the entry into force of the 123 agreement until the president certified that Russia had “verifiably suspended all assistance to the nuclear program of Iran and all transfers of advanced conventional weapons and missiles to Iran” and had committed to maintaining the suspension.
Russia has completed all the necessary procedures to bring the 123 agreement into force and is awaiting U.S. action, the Russian embassy official said.