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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Lids for Nuclear Leaks

The threat of weapons proliferation from Russia continues to preoccupy Washington. Most recently, U.S. officials have been pressing Russia to curtail alleged transfers of nuclear and missile technology to Iran. In January, the United States announced new sanctions against three Russian institutes involved in leaking sensitive nuclear information and technology to Iran. Last year, the United States sanctioned nine Russian firms for allegedly transferring missile technology to Iran. The United States is also upset over Russia's contract to complete a nuclear reactor in Iran, arguing that Iran can use its civilian nuclear complex as a front for obtaining nuclear weapons know-how and technology.

Technology and weapons transfers to Iran have been a sore spot in U.S.-Russian relations for most of the decade. U.S. intelligence agencies maintain that Iran is actively seeking Russian technological assistance in an effort to acquire nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. However, Russian officials dispute this claim and point out that Iran has received a clean bill of health from the International Atomic Energy Agency and is a signatory of the Nonproliferation Treaty. Russian policymakers also note that existing scientific cooperation with Iran does not violate international law or the regulations of international export control regimes.

What should be done about souring U.S.-Russian relations over strategic technology exports to Iran? Are sanctions the way to prevent proliferation from Russia to Iran?

First, the United States must share more intelligence with Moscow if the case against Iran is strong. While this may entail risks, a failure to share information will only serve to confirm Russian suspicions that U.S. sanctions are politically and economically motivated. Russian authorities charge that the United States has presented very little information on alleged wrongdoing by Russian entities nor supplied sufficient evidence proving Iran is seeking weapons of mass destruction. .

Second, the United States should focus on enhancing the effectiveness of international technology control regimes, rather than simply upgrading Russia's nascent export control system. Currently, the international export cartels that seek to regulate the transfer of strategic weapons technology f the Missile Technology Control Regime, Australia Group, Wassenaar Arrangement, Nuclear Suppliers Group f are weak, allowing Russian officials to rationalize almost any export of nuclear and strategic technologies. Member states disagree on what countries should be denied sensitive technologies, what constitutes a violation of the nonproliferation regime and how violations should be addressed. Until these international technology control regimes become more formalized, Russia, China and others will be able to play on the ambiguities found in their provisions.

Third, if the United States does share information with Moscow and manages to convince other states of the international community that Iran is actively seeking weapons but Russia alone refuses to ignore the evidence, sanctions should be used. Washington must also be willing to follow through on its threat to curtail Russia's participation in the International Space Station project if Russian institutes continue cooperation with Iran on missiles. It is unlikely that enterprises under the supervision of the Russian Space Agency will take such threats lightly given their dependence on western-funded projects. If Russia's Nuclear Power Ministry expands upon existing nuclear cooperation with Iran in light of unambiguous evidence of a nuclear program in Iran, the United States should use its leverage in international lending institutions and other monetary sanctions.

While much of the problem surrounding exports and assistance to Iran rests with unwillingness on the part of Russian authorities to embargo Iran, Russian agencies also lack adequate support for monitoring exports of strategic technologies. The challenge for U.S. intelligence agencies is to determine when Russian authorities are approving of exports and when Russian entities are engaged in illicit export of nuclear and missile technologies.

If Russian authorities insist that they did not approve of sensitive exports by Russian entities, the United States must be willing to present its case against those entities and must demand that Russian authorities take punitive action. To date, Russian authorities have failed to take legal action against any Russian companies or individuals involved in the alleged transfer of sensitive information and technology to Iran or other countries.

While the United States should use its economic power to demand Russia's cooperation in nonproliferation, it must also be realistic in its efforts. As long as economic hard times persist in Russia, desperate enterprises will be willing to by-pass Russia's export controls and sell their wares to anyone willing to pay. Given widespread corruption in Russia's customs and licensing agencies, enterprise directors will have little difficulty in finding partners for cementing these transfers. Russian missile-related gyroscopes that found their way to Iraq, for example, were smuggled without official knowledge.

This problem of smuggled fissile material and technology will not go away, no matter how much cajoling and sanctioning the United States does. The best hope for coping with these illegal transfers will be to promote a more economically viable Russia that is governed by the rule of law. Russia's nuclear and space sectors have benefited from interaction with the United States, but much more financial support should be offered to these sectors. More lucrative incentive packages could prevent illicit transfers and prompt Russia to join in a technology blockade of rogue states. Supporting Russia's technology sectors is a small price to bear relative to the cost of later firing million-dollar cruise missiles on Iraq or Iran in an effort to diminish their weapons capabilities.

Michael D. Beck is assistant director of the Center for International Trade and Security at the University of Georgia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.