Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S.: Arms Sales to Iran a Threat

WASHINGTON — Russian sales to Iran of technology that has both civilian and military purposes are a major obstacle to expanding U.S. efforts to prevent the spread of Russian nuclear material, a bipartisan panel has found.

The panel, established by U.S. Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to review Energy Department programs intended to safeguard Russian nuclear material, has found that the trade in so called dual-use technology, as well as in conventional weapons, from Russia to Iran remained a critical problem in relations between Washington and Moscow. And that problem makes it more difficult to resolve related proliferation disputes.

"The task force," the report said, "is particularly concerned that if Russian cooperation with Iran continues in a way that compromises nuclear nonproliferation norms, it will inevitably have a major adverse effect on continued cooperation in a wide range" of nonproliferation programs between the nations.

The panel, led by Lloyd Cutler, a former White House counsel in President Bill Clinton's administration, and former Senator Howard Baker Jr., a Republican, called for spending up to $30 billion in the next eight to 10 years to expand and improve U.S. programs to safeguard Russian nuclear materials.

There is no evidence that any nuclear material has left Russia for terrorist groups or countries that are seeking to become nuclear powers, the study said. But the threat remains one of the most critical security challenges facing the United States, the report concludes.

"We want to give the public a wake-up call about how serious this problem is," Cutler said.

The United States has spent $5 billion since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 to help Russia secure nuclear material and provide support for out-of-work scientists. But the study, which was released Wednesday, said that although U.S. efforts had been effective, the financing had not been nearly large enough to deal with the problem.

"Current nonproliferation programs in the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and related agencies have achieved impressive results thus far," the report said. "But their limited mandate and funding fall short of what is required to address adequately the threat."

But the panel acknowledged that its recommendations to expand the program dramatically would not proceed until the Russians agreed to curb their relationship with Iran.

"One of the major obstacles to going forward is the Russia-Iran relationship," Cutler said. "We're not getting anywhere. What the Russians are doing vis-?-vis Iran is violating all of the norms. Unless we can solve this problem, we don't see how our recommendations for expanding the programs can be accomplished."

The committee found that more than 1,000 metric tons of highly enriched uranium and at least 150 metric tons of weapons-grade plutonium remained in the Russian weapons complex. But Baker and Cutler agreed that one of their most worrisome findings was that no one seemed to know precisely how much fissile material remained in Russia.

"The thing that bothers me is I don't know how much they are producing, how much they've got, and I don't know whether they know or not," Baker said. "Transparency is a major issue."

The report noted recent incidents that had heightened concerns about the potential for a "loose nukes" crisis. This month, the report said, the Federal Security Service arrested four sailors at a nuclear submarine base on the Kamchatka peninsula and found a cache of precious metals and radioactive material that they had stolen from a safe in their sub. In 1998, a conspiracy at a complex of the Nuclear Power Ministry was uncovered. Individuals were trying to steal fissile material, the report said.

"The head of MinAtom's [Nuclear Power Ministry's] nuclear material accounting confirmed the attempted theft and warned that had the attempt been successful, it would have caused significant damage to the Russian state," the study reported.

In December 1998, an employee at a nuclear laboratory in Sarov, Central Russia, was arrested. The employee was trying to sell documents on nuclear weapons designs to agents of Iraq and Afghanistan, the report said.

Along with increased spending of $3 billion a year, the panel recommended that the new administration create a high-level White House post to coordinate U.S. efforts on the Russian nuclear problems.

Although the panel that produced the report was established by Richardson in the Clinton administration, Baker noted in an interview that he had already discussed the findings with President-elect George W. Bush's choice for secretary of state, General Colin Powell.