Iran & Russia's Hot Double Games: SS-20 missiles sold as well as S-300 and plutonium breeder
On Sept 16 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama declared that the United States of America would no longer proceed with the anti-missile system in Middle and Eastern Europe that had been initiated by his predecessor George W. Bush. In future, the U.S. will focus on sea-based defense systems instead of the controversial defense radar and missile systems in Poland and in the Czech Republic. Barack Obama's decision triggered strong responses. Some welcomed his decision as the cancellation of a technically unproven system and a chance to restart relations with Russia. Critics denounced his decision as a capitulation to Moscow and betrayal of important allies and partners.
Little attention has been focused on Barack Obama's justification for his new plans: a reassessment of the threat situation. Iran, the Obama administration now claims, will not be in a position to reach further than the Southeast of Europe with missiles for the foreseeable future. Iran's missiles are not thought to have a range greater than 2000 km. But that is far from the reality.
Immediately after Barack Obama's announcement on the new threat assessment, retired Russian Major General Dworkin declared that Iran will soon have missiles with a range of about 5500 km. Dworkin, a Moscow institution and known for his open language, did not go into detail. But there is only one explanation for his prediction: Russia has sold some of its SS-20 misiles to Iran (which should have been dismantled following the INF treaty) complete with engines but without warheads. This may be sensational but should not come as a surprise. Sensational, because this was not public knowledge previously and would push Iran's military capabilities into a new dimension. Unsurprising, because Russia has already exported previous versions of the SS-20 to Iran in the 1990s. Already back in 1997 Iran tested the Russian R-124 rocket engine, previously used in the SS-4, a little later the R-216 engine, used in the SS-5. The latter has an estimated range of 4000 km.
And now the SS-20, a two-stage solid fuel missile with a range of about 5500 km; all of Western Europe lies in its crosshairs. It's an historic irony that this missile caused controversial in the early eighties. Russia justified the re-use of these former medium-range missiles as aid for Iran's "space activities". Honi soit qui mal y pense.
Equally dramatic is the construction of a Russian heavy-water plant in Arak. When in 2002 an Iranian resistance group made this project public, it became obvious that the plant was a 40MW heavy water reactor, including a production line for heavy water and thus for nuclear fuel rods. The design and so the source of the blueprints remain unclear. After the revelation of the plant, Iran officially informed the International Atomic Energy Agency, but made no announcement on this. Iran declared that this reactor should produce isotopes for medical purposes. It should replace the 'outdated' research reactor in Tehran. However, analysis revealed that the reactor in Tehran was not at capacity, and its replacement by a modern plant was not necessary. This meant that the heavy water reactor in Arak could and would be only for production of weapons-grade plutonium. Almost all experts agreed on this assessment, but the question of the facility's design remained unanswered. The majority guessed China as supplier of the blueprints, in spite of the fact that the CIA had already given warning of connected Russian activities in December 1998. It took until summer 2009 to prove finally that the nuclear reactor in Arak was of Russian design - a commercial version of the huge Russian plutonium reactors of the1950s. It was built by Russian companies under the leadership of the NIKIET institute in Moscow.
What next? Alongside the heavy water reactor in Arak, Russia is building a plutonium breeder reactor for the Iranians with a production capacity of one to two nuclear warheads per year. The West looks calmly on because this reactor will not be completed until 2013, even though this reactor was inspected by the IAEA for the first time only a few weeks ago. Because a reprocessing plant must be built before Tehran can start the chemical separation of plutonium, Western diplomats and politicians keep quiet. Public attention is focused on the large enrichment plant in Natanz. And Russia continues to claim to be a responsible signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
What has been written so far might give the impression that Russia's shady business with Iran is a new phenomenon. That's not the case, however: Russia started doing nuclear business with Iran by January 1995, when Russia signed a treaty for about 800 million US dollars to complete a German-built reactor in Bushehr that had reached 80 percent completion before this light-water reactor had been partly destroyed by Iraq.
The U.S. tried in vain to intervene and stop the signing of this agreement. But when the U.S. learned only weeks later of a secret annex to the contract, their mistrust was justified. Russia had promised Iran not only the construction of a 30-50 MW 'research reactor' but a special configuration thereof with only one possible aim: the production of weapons-grade plutonium. In addition, Russia promised to supply of 2000 tons of raw uranium, support for raw uranium mining, and the training of Iranian nuclear specialists. Finally however, and most importantly, Russia offered to supply a complete uranium enrichment plant based on Russian centrifuge technology.
The opportunity to confront Russia with these facts came in May 1995. At the summit between Boris Yeltzin and Bill Clinton, and after having been informed of by the U.S. of their knowledge of the secret part of the treaty, the Russian President gave a statement unique in the argument over Iran's military nuclear programme. After a general statement that the treaty with Iran was legitimate and compatible with international law, Yeltsin continued: "However it is true that the treaty comprises components of both civil and military nuclear energy...we agreed to separate these two components. We have decided to delete from the treaty those aspects which deal with the military component and capability to produce weapons-grade material."
But what could this cooperation on "military nuclear energy" have meant, other than help in nuclear bomb building? How was it possible to support a military nuclear programme which, it was claimed, nonexistent - a programme Russia had bound itself to stop occurring by signing the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It became clear that Russia had been ready to enable Iran's construction of a nuclear bomb.
After this fiasco in 1995 the Russian leadership withdrew from their dealings with Iran in critical materials - apart from the the ongoing construction in Bushehr. At the same time the bilateral trade relations in the nuclear sector between companies and institutions increased dramatically. Russia was always aware of Iran's nuclear intentions. In 1998, Secretary of Nuclear Energy Adamov admitted to high ranking members of the U.S. government that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons. That however, according to Adamov, was no reason for Russia to cease nuclear cooperation with Iran.
The story of the Artic Sea shows that the non-nuclear weapons cooperation between Russia and Iran is macabre too. The background of the alleged freighter hijacking is still not clear. There are more and more indications that the Israeli secret service Mossad stopped the Malta-registered freighter, searched it and took parts of its load away. The ship's manifest stated the freighter was carrying wood, but this was obviously a cover. In fact, the freighter was carrying Russian S-300 surface-to-air missiles. The Russian Minister for foreign affairs denied this, but nevertheless many sources within the Russian military-industrial complex agreed with this interpretation.
One big clue for this view was the secret visit, at short notice, of the Israeli President Simon Perez to Moscow in mid-August. It is assumed that Perez confronted his counterpart Medvedev with the evidence gathered by Mossad. Upon his return to Israel, Simon Perez declared that Medvedev had promised to "reconsider the sale of the S-300". The fact that Shimon Perez mentioned in public only this part of his discussion with Medvedev made clear what the real purpose of his visit to Moscow was. The answer given by Medvedev seemed obliging but in reality it was more of a diplomatical rebuff. There is one important factor unspoken: there is a treaty - probably from 2007 - between Russia and Iran dealing with the supply of S-300s. Previously, all Russians power denied having supplied any of the modern versions of the S-300.
But now, after the discovery of the forbidden cargo of the Artic Sea, Israel had to realize along with the West that Russia is arming Iran clandestinely with technically advanced air defence systems. These systems should protect Iran against possible Israeli air attacks against Iran's nuclear power plants, enabling Iran's construction of a nuclear weapons arsenal. Weapons simulations conducted at the CSIS in Washington, DC concluded that usage by Iran of modern air defence systems, such as the S-300 PMU-1 (SA - 20) or the S-300 V (SA -12), would increase the casualty rate of Israeli attack aircraft by 20 to 30%. Only stealth aircraft are capable of overcoming such air defences. Israel however does not own any of these stealth bombers; at least not yet. And Israel will not be able to obtain the super modern American F-35 Lightning II until 2014.
This problem has in no way abated with the discovery of the Artic Sea's controversial cargo, nor with Russian attempts to cover up the scandal. The Russian arms companies dealing with arms procurement are very imaginative in their attempts to bypass bans and deliver their weapons worldwide. One method used by companies from other countries is to deliver via companies in third countries. These companies forward on the wares with new addresses to the end users. A German company which delivered parts of a centrifuge for uranium enrichment to North Korea used an intermediary address in China. For many years China has been used as a transit country for suspicious weapons dealings.
In the case of the supply of S-300s from Russia to Iran, there is another transit country: Venezuela. This South American country has ordered the latest S-300 VM from Russia for delivery in 2010/11. Russia can then deliver openly to Venezuela, and Colonel Chavez will take care of the rest. Examples of the impressively close relations between Venezuela and Iran are the provision of Iranian 'travelling cadres' with Venezuelan passports and the offer to use banks in Venezuela for the money flow to and from Iran.
Russia is playing a double game on Iran. On the one hand, the Russian government declares -vaguely enough - that a nuclear Iran is not desirable. On the other hand they provide Iran with all the components needed to construct and run nuclear plants, including those of military aim. Further, they supply missiles which can carry a nuclear warhead. The U.S. have been trying since the mid 1990s to thwart these double standards without much success. The consequences of this can be seen at the periodic poker game for effective sanctions against Iran. So far, no decisive results have been achieved. There is no change in sight.