Brains Drained
U.S. policy towards Iran's rockets, reactors, and Russia.


Henry Sokolski

Consistency, we are told, is the hobgoblin of small minds. When it comes to Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, though, our government’s thinking seems to have gone cosmic. On the one hand, the White House is warning the world of Iran’s development of nuclear-armed missiles that could hit Europe. On the other, it continues to sanction U.S. funding of Russian institutes known to be helping Iran built large reactors and rockets.

Tracking this inconsistency requires not only an agile mind, but a strong stomach.

In the current negotiations over United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions against Iran, U.S. officials are opposing the transport of anything that might help the nuclear- and long-range-missile programs of Iran. They are insisting that no financial credits, travel visas for individuals, or safe transit of goods be afforded if it might “contribute” to “proliferation-sensitive” nuclear or missile activities in Iran.

At the same time, though, the White House is backing a Department of Energy budget that would send more than $4 million in U.S.-taxpayer money to promote “nonproliferation” activities at least two prominent Russian nuclear institutes — the Federal Scientific and Industrial Center of Nuclear Machine Building and the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems. Both are known to be helping to complete Iran’s large power reactor at Bushehr.

Our government is willing to fund these Russian institutes, as Secretary of Energy Bodman explained before the House Energy and Commerce Committee February 7, because Iran’s reactor at Bushehr is safeguarded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The presumption here is that, despite the IAEA’s previous failures to detect weapons activities in North Korea and Iraq, with the IAEA inspections of Bushehr, the reactor project would not present a significant proliferation threat.

Also, as senior officials at the Department of Energy told Congress last week, the aim of U.S. funding — to help redirect the work of the institute’s staff towards civilian, non-weapon, and commercial work and to block Russian brain drain to would-be bomb-makers — was to promote nonproliferation. In the Department of Energy’s view, then, “The fact of a Russian institute’s participation in the Bushehr project does not automatically disqualify it from participating in the Department’s scientist redirection program.”

U.S. policy, however, is different regarding Iran’s “peaceful” enrichment of uranium at Natanz, which the IAEA also has under international safeguards. The argument here is that Iran might use operations at this internationally inspected facility as a cover for a separate, covert uranium enrichment program at site outside of Natanz to make bombs.

The U.S. used to make the same argument about the reactor at Bushehr. In 2003, the State Department’s spokesman stated that the U.S. opposed Bushehr’s construction because the U.S. believed Iran was using it “as a cover and a pretext for obtaining sensitive technologies to advance its nuclear weapons program.” Secretary Bolton and the House Select Committee on Intelligence’s own staff report on Iran’s nuclear program also noted that Bushehr itself could produce tens of bombs’ worth of nuclear-weapons-usable plutonium and that Iran could gain access to this material whether the Russians took spent fuel from the reactor site or not.

In March of 2005, however, Moscow and the White House agreed not to make Russian assistance to Bushehr a matter for UNSC sanctions. The White House actually offered, with France, Germany, and the U.K., to join Russia in helping Iran build more reactors like Bushehr. In exchange, Moscow supported the first of a series of relatively weak UNSC sanctions resolutions targeted against Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities.


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