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