The Corner

Are Russian Scientists Aiding Iran’s Nuclear Program?

Last weekend, Israel leaked to the Sunday Times of London that Russian scientists are developing nuclear warheads for Iran. According to the leakers, that’s why Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow for a “secret” visit September 7.

If true, this information may accelerate sanctions against Iran, or even precipitate military action to destroy the Iranian nuclear-weapons program. It may also blow President Obama’s Russia “reset” policy to smithereens.

The news evokes a specter of things past. In the early 1960s, Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser imported former Nazi scientists to develop a medium-range ballistic missile to use against Israel. The Israeli intelligence service, the Mossad, launched an assassination program targeting the scientists. It stopped Egypt’s missile program in its tracks.

But there’s a big difference between Egypt then and Iran today: Iran presents a much harder target.

And then there’s the big question: What role Russia is playing in the Iranian nuclear program?

If the Sunday Times story is true — if Russian scientists and engineers are indeed helping to create the mullahs’ doomsday weapons — that means the West was wrong to assume that a nuclear-armed Iran runs counter to Russia’s national interest. It means our intelligence-collection efforts in Iran and Russia have been a massive failure. It means that Russia cannot be a bona fide partner in stopping the Iranian nuclear effort. Indeed, it means that Moscow is following geopolitical agenda aimed at thoroughly destroying U.S. influence in the Middle East.

During a recent trip to Russia, senior advisors to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev told me that “Russia will be the last country against which Iran may point its nukes.” They also predicted that Iran will be the “next regional superpower” in the Middle East. Therefore, if Tehran points its warheads at Israel, American bases in the Middle East, and Sunni Arab states allied with the U.S., Moscow will have nothing against it.

U.S. and European analyses have assumed it would take Iran until to 2015 to develop nukes. But if the Russians are busy designing warheads for the mullahs, that timetable goes up in smoke. Iran might be able to deliver nukes as early as next year.

In his persuasive analysis of the Sunday Times leak, Stratfor founder George Friedman raises some important questions. Why would Netanyahu demonstrate to Russia that Israel had penetrated the inner sanctum of the Iranian nuclear program (its warhead design operation)? Why would Israeli present a list of scientists to Russia now, compromising “sources and methods” and thus rendering the Mossad intelligence operation in Iran obsolete? Does this mean Israel has decided to launch a military strike, and was just giving the Russians ample warning?

Perhaps this is “last call” for Russia to endorse U.N. sanctions, pull out its scientists, and get on the Western bandwagon. The alternative may be a deep and prolonged breach of relations with the West. That’s a price that Russia, still seriously weakened by the global economic crisis, may not be willing to pay.

More likely, however, Russia will continue to deny involvement in the alleged warhead development, as its National Security Council secretary, Gen. Nikolay Patrushev, a Putin confidante, already has. While President Medvedev tentatively accepted the possibility of sanctions against Iran in his speech before the U.N. General Assembly, both Prime Minister Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov have denied the necessity of crippling sanctions.

If that’s the way the Kremlin wants to play it, get ready for a confrontation.

– Ariel Cohen is Senior Research Fellow at the Shelby and Katherine Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

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