Magazine article Insight on the News

Russia (and U.S.) Help Iran Build Weapons

Magazine article Insight on the News

Russia (and U.S.) Help Iran Build Weapons

Article excerpt

The Jan. 8 announcement that Russia has agreed to build a nuclear power plant in Iran has intensified concern in Washington about Tehran's determined efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Although there is considerable uncertainty about the size and pace of Iran's nuclear program, the uncovering of Saddam Hussein's covert effort to build an Iraqi nuclear weapon underscores the danger of complacency.

Western intelligence agencies believe that Iran, like Iraq, is using its civilian nuclear program as a cover for acquiring the technology and expertise with which to build nuclear weapons. Iran denies this, maintaining that it needs nuclear energy to generate electricity. But the country has failed to come up with a convincing explanation of why it does not rely on its huge natural gas and oil reserves to generate electricity at a much lower cost.

The CIA last year estimated that Iran was eight to 10 years away from building nuclear weapons but might be able to shorten that timetable if it gets critical foreign assistance. Israeli experts believe Tehran could shave five years off that projection if it can leapfrog the normal development process by obtaining key assets from the former Soviet Union.

American intelligence analysts report that Iranian acquisition teams are shopping for weapons-related nuclear equipment and scientists in the former Soviet Union, concentrating on Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan. Iran also may be able to tap into the flourishing black market in nuclear materials from the old Soviet bloc states that has sprung up in Europe. A senior Israeli official predicted in early January that Iran could have all the components of a nuclear weapon within two years if present trends continue.

The United States has sought to organize an international embargo on nuclear exports to Iran: Washington successfully blocked an Iranian attempt to buy nuclear enrichment equipment from Argentina in 1992, and it helped convince Germany to withdraw from building two nuclear reactors -- originally ordered by the shah -- at Bushehr on Iran's Persian Gulf coast.

The $800 million nuclear deal announced recently commits Moscow to completing work on one of these Bushehr reactors, which was 80 percent complete when work was interrupted by the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This agreement is disturbing because it indirectly will benefit Iran's nuclear-weapons program and will encourage other countries to step up their nuclear cooperation with Iran.

The United States can try to contain the damage by acting on two fronts. …

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