Politics & Policy

Brains Drained

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

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.

The U.S., therefore, opposes any nation helping Iran’s uranium-enrichment efforts whether they be safeguarded or not. Yet now it is entirely fine for Russia or any other nation to export components and expertise to Iran to complete reactors like Bushehr — a system that the U.S. used to view as a cover for Iranian nuclear-weapons activities and that annually can generate enough nuclear-weapon-usable plutonium to produce a sizable arsenal of atomic bombs.

As for long-range Iranian rockets, U.S. policy is equally inconsistent. Washington, as noted, is negotiating a United Nations resolution urging nations to stop helping Iran’s long-range-missile programs with technology, financing, staff, or hardware. On the other hand, the U.S. government continues to send millions of dollars annually to the Russian Federal Space Agency (RFSA) — an organization that U.S. intelligence agencies know is overseeing space institutes that are directly assisting Iran’s missiles programs. Compounding this weirdness is that the White House went out of its way two years ago to remove legal restrictions that otherwise would have blocked NASA from working with RFSA until it got out of the Iran rocket assistance game.

Under the Iran and Syria Nonproliferation Act of 2000, NASA was prohibited from funding any cooperative space projects with the Russian government unless the White House first certified that none of the space institutes under the Russian government’s control were assisting Iran’s long-range-missile programs. This included NASA progress payments to Russia for the Russian Federal Space Agency’s work on Soyuz — a safety rescue vehicle for the International Space Station.

By 2005, though, NASA and the White House found this ban irksome, and the White House asked Congress to relieve it of having to make any specific certifications regarding individual Russian space institutes. The argument made at the time was that amending the law was critical to keep the space station project on schedule and on budget (an worry that arose all of a sudden, after more than three decades and billions of dollars in space station delays and cost overruns). In any case, Congress quietly demurred and approved the request.

Earlier this month the fruits of this policy were realized on two fronts. First, on February 4, Iran launched a large rocket into space, an event that demonstrated that Tehran is pressing ahead with its efforts to extend the rocketry’s range. Three days later, the U.S. launched a shuttle mission to the International Space Station knowing it could count on Russia to make its Soyuz transit vehicle available if needed.

The White House, of course, has long been concerned about Iran’s increasing ability to target NATO. Last year, it initiated an effort to build multi-billion dollar missile defenses against such rockets in Poland and the Czech Republic. U.S. diplomats are also negotiating language for yet another United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran that would focus on Iran’s nuclear-capable-missile program.

Still, it is U.S. policy to continue to fund the RFSA even though the U.S. director of national intelligence last year again confirmed publicly that entities under Russian supervision continue to help Iran’s long-range-rocket program directly. It remains to be seen if the White House would use the authority it might gain, in a United Nations Security Council resolution against Iran, to block the movement of Russian rocket experts or of NASA progress payments to the RFSA. Cynics who know how NASA and Congress operate, however, already are discounting this possibility.

As for Congress, the House last year overwhelmingly passed a bill that would maintain sanctions on Iran. This bill would block the U.S. from entering into formal nuclear cooperation with Russia (President Bush initialed such an agreement with Putin last summer) until the president certified that Russia no longer was assisting Iran’s nuclear or missile programs (civil or otherwise). An identical bill has been drafted in the Senate and has 69 cosponsors. It is being held up by a single senator at the request, for some reason, of the White House.

None of this is easy to understand. To any U.S. taxpayer or ally concerned about Iran, it’s got to give not only inconsistency, but U.S. policy, a bad name.

– Henry Sokolski is the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and editor of Falling Behind: International Scrutiny of the Peaceful Atom (U.S. Army War College, 2008).

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