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Iran: Russia Viewed As Biggest Supporter Of Weapons Programs

U.S. officials say Russia remains second to none in its support for Iran's quest to obtain missile technology, complemented by a full range of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). This was the assessment reached during a joint Senate Foreign Relations Sub-Committee hearing Thursday on Iran's weapons programs and Russia's role. RFE/RL senior correspondent Lisa McAdams reports.

Washington, 6 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. officials agree the progress Iran has made in developing its missile and biological, chemical and nuclear weapons programs has not been without outside support. Rather, they say, the facts show Iran has benefited greatly from foreign suppliers among whom, they say, Russia has been second to none.

Largely featured in Thursday's hearing were Russian transfers of both material and technological expertise to Tehran that could lead to dual-usage, like the production of highly-enriched uranium or plutonium for nuclear weapons.

Republican Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) opened the hearing by characterizing Iran's efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction as "aggressive and ongoing." Brownback said that is disturbing news in light of the U.S. Congress' passage earlier this year of legislation designed to not only slow, but thwart, Iran's weapons efforts and particularly technology transfers. The legislation is known as the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 and it was signed into law by President Bill Clinton on March 14 of this year.

Brownback said it is a law that has yet to be translated into practice:

"Transfers to Iran from the very countries with whom this act is concerned, Russia in particular, continue unabated. Just last month, Tehran again test fired its Shahab-3 missile. That missile would be sitting in a box somewhere if it wasn't for the assistance of Russia to Iran. To my mind we're facing a crisis in coming years and responsibility can largely be laid at the feet of this Administration (of U.S. President Bill Clinton)."

Republican Senator Gordon Smith (R-Oregon) was equally critical in his view of the U.S. administration's record to date.

Smith said Russian equipment, training, technology and know-how permeate the entire Iranian military. Equally disturbing, he said, has been the assistance Russia has provided Iran's missile programs. Smith says Russia also has been a significant source of assistance to Iran's weapons of mass destruction programs. He said the symbol of that cooperation are the power plants at Bushehr, where Russia is building two nuclear reactors.

He said this sustained and potentially lethal relationship between Russia and Iran has not gone unnoticed in the U.S. Congress and he urged the Clinton Administration to seriously address the issue at hand:

"The Kremlin's refusal to curb this relationship should prompt a substantive change in how the United States engages Russia. To date, the administration has treated this Iranian-Russian technology cooperation not as a policy priority, but as a nuisance to its own strategy of engaging the government of the Russian Federation. As a result, the Administration's response to Russia's cooperation with Iran has been more symbolic than substantive, a fact clearly evident to the Kremlin."

Smith says progress in this area is in the interest of future U.S. national security, which he says could soon be directly affected by Iran's weapons programs efforts.

John Lauder, special assistant to the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), also raised concern about the work at Bushehr in brief remarks before the sub-committees.

"Work continues on the construction of a 1,000-megawatt nuclear power reactor at Bushehr that will be subject to international atomic energy safeguards. This project will not directly support a weapons effort, but it affords Iran broad access to Russia's nuclear industry. Russian entities are interacting with Iranian nuclear research centers on a wide variety of activities beyond the Bushehr project. Many of these projects, ostensibly for civilian nuclear uses, have direct application to the production of weapons-grade fissile material."

Lauder characterized Iran as having a large and growing chemical weapons production capacity and a biotechnology program that is in the "late stages" of research and development. According to Lauder, Iran also has the technical infrastructure to support a significant biological weapons program.

U.S. assistant secretary of state for non-proliferation, Robert Einhorn, agreed with the U.S. legislators that Russia remains Tehran's most active weapons program sponsor. But he said he did not agree the situation was as bad as some portrayed.

Einhorn said, in his view, the U.S. has made some "significant positive steps" in solving the proliferation problem.

"Our (U.S.) policies with respect to Iran have been effective. They have succeeded in slowing and complicating Iran's programs and driving up their costs. They have closed off many of the world's best sources of advanced technology to Iranian procurement efforts and have forced Iran to rely on technologies less sophisticated and reliable than otherwise would have been the case."

And critically, Einhorn said, the U.S. has bought additional time.

He also said he did not believe it was "inevitable," as some lawmakers Thursday suggested, that Iran would gather long-range missiles and comprehensive nuclear weapons capabilities. Einhorn said he based his view on what he called clear U.S. policy.

Brownback got in the last word saying the only thing clear was that the next U.S. presidential administration would inherit a diplomatic situation full of broken promises, coupled with a commercial situation whereby Russian companies profit not only from trade with the U.S., but with the Iranians on the side.