Commentary Magazine


The Russia Connection

When he visited Moscow in August, Binyamin Netanyahu is reported to have handed over a list of Russian scientists who, according to Israeli intelligence, are working on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. The implications of this about Russia’s credibility as a partner in suppressing that program are obvious. But since neither Moscow nor Washington actually needed Bibi to point this information out, his visit was more likely a diplomatic confrontation than an advisory exchange.

Russia’s hand has been all over Iran’s nuclear program for years, from refurbishing the Bushehr reactor and supplying Iran with low-enriched uranium to Russian scientists providing blueprints for the plutonium reactor at Arak. Russia’s overt involvement has naturally created suspicion about covert involvement. So has a steady pattern of other developments.

Most of the global incidents of nuclear smuggling since the first major outbreak in 1994 map back in one way or another to Russia. Since 2003, meanwhile, Iran has been the main potential customer. Smuggling of dual-use technology and even fissile material continued through the mid-2000s, and has not been confined to the machinations of Pakistanis. British and German criminal cases opened in 2007 revealed networks that involved not just Russian-originated material, but smuggling routes into Iran through Russia.

The U.S. sought to interdict Russia’s nuclear sales to Iran back in the mid-1990s, and launched programs under Clinton and Bush to reduce Russia’s uranium stockpiles and find work for Russian scientists. However, Congress concluded in 2008 that we were, in effect, paying for the participation of Russian scientists in Iran’s nuclear program. This policy inconsistency was spotlighted in October 2008 by the IAEA revelation that one of its “Western intelligence documents” detailed a Russian scientist’s participation in nuclear warhead tests in Iran. In the wake of the Russia-Georgia war, the IAEA disclosure prompted Bush to suspend activities under the “Megatons to Megawatts” program.

We have predicated policy for years on Russian involvement in multiple ways—some nefarious—in Iran’s nuclear program. Even if we accept the theory that some of these activities are not approved by the Kremlin, Moscow’s failure to control them cannot possibly be cast in a positive light. Neither complicity nor ineptitude argues for Russian utility as a negotiating partner. Amenability in Moscow to “partnership” parses best as a means of stringing both Iran and the West along. It may be that we can’t dispense with Russian partnership in dealing with Iran; but we could at least resume the Clinton-Bush policy of buying it with cash, rather than paying for it with concessions on our deterrence posture and security. Cash was a better measure of what it has been worth.