Iranian Nuclear Weapons: From Russia with Disdain

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 19, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Iranian Nuclear Weapons: From Russia with Disdain


Byline: Henry Sokolski, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In Washington, it's almost impossible to underestimate how blase officials can become about the most hair-raising news if it involves an entity they believe the U.S. must do business with. Consider Capitol Hill and executive-branch reaction to news of continued Russian assistance to Iran's nuclear weapons program. Rather than open a debate about what Moscow is up to, most officials have been in one or another form of denial. This is a mistake. In fact, the latest evidence suggests Russia is trying to play both us and Iran.

Earlier this month, leaked International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) documents revealed that Tehran has been working on a nuclear warhead design that is far smaller, lighter and more advanced than anything previously suspected. Unlike the complicated, first-generation nuclear weapons design China shared with Pakistan and that Pakistani nuclear scientist A.Q. Khan, in turn, shared with Libya, this model uses only two shaped chemical explosive charges (instead of the 32 used in first-generation designs) to compress and set off a relatively narrow football-shaped core of nuclear weapons fuel - i.e., plutonium or highly enriched uranium. This two-point detonation warhead, which only the most advanced nuclear weapons states have mastered, is small and light enough to enable Iran's latest rocket systems to target NATO's southeastern members. With further range improvements, which are expected before 2015, Iran could target most of Europe.

Where did Iran get this technology? The Guardian reporter that broke the story points to Russia. As he notes, the IAEA has been trying to get Iran to turn over state's evidence about a Russian nuclear weapons implosion expert's visit there several years ago. The agency's concern here, though, is not just historical. In late September, Israeli and British papers revealed that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow and personally handed Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin a highly classified list of specific Russian scientists that the Israelis believe are still helping Iran's nuclear weapons program.

Given the political imperative to stop Iran from getting the bomb, you'd think these reports would knock most officials back on their heels. Yet, when asked about them, most U.S. officials are reticent. The IAEA documents, they note, only covered developments through 2004. They have not seen the Israeli list. Finally, even if true, it is unlikely, they say, that the Russian government was knowingly involved.

Yet, when pressed that Russia had to know of the movement of its own weapons experts - a point Mr. Netanyahu is reported to have made to Mr. Putin - some officials open up: Of course, they are concerned, they confide, but their hands are tied since we must cooperate with Russia.

Perhaps, but to what extent?

In March 2008, the Bush administration filed an assessment of Russian nuclear proliferation activities with Congress.

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