Iran May Soon Have Nukes

Summit meetings between world leaders rarely end in complete disagreement. When a summit is arranged, the documents to be signed are drawn up in advance, ensuring at least a semblance of success. Last week in Bratislava, President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush disagreed on democracy and freedom of the press in Russia, but agreed to increase cooperation on nonproliferation, nuclear security and counterterrorism.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

Bush announced that he and Putin had agreed that Iran and North Korea should not have nuclear weapons. Putin seemed to confirm this, saying that "we talked a lot about nonproliferation, we talked a lot about the situation in Iran and North Korea, and we share a common opinion." Putin added that "we should put an end to the proliferation of missiles and missile technology.

Fine words, but are Bush and Putin really on the same page?

Putin met Iranian National Security Council chief Hasan Rowhani in Moscow just before the summit and announced that "Iran's actions have convinced Russia that Iran does not intend to produce nuclear weapons." Putin confirmed Russia would continue its nuclear cooperation and would continue to sell Iran the latest weapons.

Ukrainian authorities recently disclosed that in 2000 Iran secretly obtained strategic Soviet-made X-55 cruise missiles that should have been sent to Russia under the terms of the START I nuclear disarmament treaty. Iran reportedly spent millions of dollars to obtain the X-55 illegally, to purchase maintenance equipment and to employ military specialists to operate the cruise missiles.

The X-55, tipped with Iranian-produced nukes, would threaten Israel, U.S. allies and American troops in the Middle East. The X-55 can fly up to 3,000 kilometers and could potentially be aimed at U.S. territory if launched from a modified transport or passenger plane.

Without nuclear warheads the X-55 missiles are worthless. The theft of the missiles is damning evidence of Iran's true nuclear intentions. Was Putin serious when he talked about putting "an end to the proliferation of missiles and missile technology?" The X-55 missiles legally belong to Russia under the terms of START I. Russia is therefore obliged to do its best to recover them.

Russia should have demanded the return of the stolen items and stopped all nuclear and military cooperation with Iran to ensure compliance. Instead, the Kremlin has continued cooperation, has continued to sell Iran modern weapons and has transferred military and nuclear technologies to Iran. Russia has agreed to help put Iranian satellites into orbit that are essential for guiding the X-55 missiles to target with high precision.

Immediately after the Bratislava summit, Alexander Rumyantsev, the director of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency, or RosAtom, signed an agreement in Iran to deliver fuel for the Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant. It was also agreed that the spent fuel would be sent back to Russia for long-term storage or reprocessing after a cooling-off period of several years during which it would be stored in Iran.

The spent-fuel clause is intended to quell U.S. fears that Iran could use the fuel to extract plutonium for making nukes. But if the Iranians want to get their hands on the spent fuel in years to come, there's not much Russia or the United States can do to stop them. Spent fuel from the Bushehr light-water reactor is unsuitable for the extraction of arms-grade plutonium, however.

Moscow pressed Tehran to sign the spent-fuel agreement because it will bring RosAtom additional revenue. The agency will charge the Iranians for the fuel itself, for storage and for reprocessing. The wrangling over the fuel issue was about money, not nuclear security.

The real security threat is fresh fuel. Iran has illegally obtained Pakistani centrifuges to produce arms-grade uranium, but the only natural uranium mine on Iranian territory produces inferior material containing relatively little of the uranium U-235 needed for weapons production. If the Iranians secretly reroute several of the massive fuel rods that Russia will begin to deliver this year to Bushehr, they can make nuclear warheads for the X-55 before year's end.

The partially enriched uranium in the fuel rods could be further enriched to arms grade using a relatively small and nearly undetectable centrifuge. All the Iranians need to do is bribe Russian officials to turn a blind eye and the final component that would give a terrorist state a long-range, operational nuclear arms capability would be in place.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.