Prepared testimony by Leonard S. Spector, Director Nuclear Non-Proliferation Project Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

before the Subcommittee on Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs Senate Foreign Relations Committee April 17, 1997

It is an honor to testify before the committee this afternoon on U.S. efforts to halt weapon of mass destruction (WMD) and missile programs in Iran.

Iran’s growing capabilities in these spheres already pose a grave risk to U.S. allies and U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf region, but this threat could greatly worsen in coming years, as Iran graduates to even more potent weapons than it currently possesses, enlarges its missile arsenal, builds longer-range systems, and learns to mate its weapons of mass destruction with these advanced delivery systems.

As an independent observer who has not had access to classified information on these issues, it is possible for me to offer only a rough appreciation of the status of Iran’s military programs and of U.S. efforts to constrain them. Nonetheless, using published reports and statements of U.S. and foreign officials, it is possible to develop a framework for assessing the successes and failures of U.S. policy. I hope the Committee will be able to employ this framework as it evaluates the more complete information at its disposal.

The United States has many instruments in its tool kit to fight the spread of WMD and advanced delivery systems. These include:

    • building and sustaining international non-proliferation regimes and norms;
    • slowing the spread of dangerous technology through unilateral and multilateral export controls;
    • employing targeted diplomatic initiatives, including security guarantees, incentives, and sanctions;
    • working to reduce the regional security threats that spawn interest in special weapons;
    • applying military resources through "counter-proliferation" initiatives; and
    • implementing the "Cooperative Threat Reduction" program, also known as the Nunn-Lugar program, aimed at helping to secure weapon of mass destruction and WMD materials in the former Soviet Union.

Like its predecessors, the Clinton Administration has attempted to use all of these mechanisms, at various times and in various combinations, to restrain Iran’s WMD and missile advances. In the end, whether one or another of these mechanisms has been used to its fullest extent is less important than whether, by taking advantage of its entire tool kit, the Administration has obtained results.

From my perspective, the record is mixed. There have been some important successes with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and, possibly, with respect to aspects of its missile program. But there have also been some serious setbacks, especially with respect to Iran’s development of biological and chemical weapons.

One useful way for filling in the Administration’s non-proliferation scorecard vis-à-vis Iran is to identify the principal Iranian programs of concern and assess the results of the Administration’s efforts in each case.

Based on the open record, Iran can be thought of as pursuing WMD and missile programs along at least eleven distinct paths, including:

1. Nuclear weapons (clandestine production of nuclear weapons material)

2. Nuclear weapons (purchase of nuclear weapons material)

3. Nuclear weapons (open, civil nuclear energy program)

4. Biological weapons (domestic production, with some outside assistance)

5. Basic chemical weapons (domestic production, including sulfur mustard, phosgene, and cyanide, with outside assistance)

6. Advanced chemical weapons (domestic production of agents such as, Soman, Tabun, Sarin, and VX, with outside assistance)

7. Scud missiles (purchases -- including Scud-Cs with a range of 500 km)

8. Longer range ballistic missiles (purchases -- North Korean 1,000 km Nodong)

9. Scud and other short range missiles (indigenous production -- including Scud-Cs with a range of 500 km -- with outside assistance)

10. Longer range 1,000 to 1,400 km ballistic missiles (indigenous production, with outside assistance)

11. Cruise missiles (acquisition of the Chinese C-802 and the domestic development of land-attack derivatives)

To keep my remarks brief, I will only outline developments in each of these areas, but I would be pleased to expand my comments on particular points in response to questions from the Committee. For the convenience of the Subcommittee, I have appended to my testimony an annotate table, prepared by my colleague Gregory Koblentz, listing alleged transfers of nuclear, biological, chemical, and missile equipment and technology and the U.S. response, with particular reference to the imposition of sanctions.

1. Nuclear weapons (clandestine production of nuclear weapons material). Despite reports dating back a number of years that Iran is seeking to develop the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons material, to date it has not been reported that Iran is building any of the key installations needed for this purpose. Iran is constrained by its status as a party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to accept comprehensive International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections and has voluntarily allowed wide-ranging monitoring that goes beyond the IAEA’s normal oversight. To date, although the IAEA is now privy to U.S. intelligence, it has not unearthed any clandestine facility in Iran needed for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, and, as I noted earlier, there have been no reports that such a facility exists. Several reports indicate, moreover, that Iran’s efforts to import equipment for a clandestine nuclear effort have been thwarted in particular cases, suggesting that U.S. intelligence and Western export controls are being used to advantage in this battle. Recently, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director John Holum testified that in the past two years, Iran has made little or no progress down this path -- or any other path -- toward nuclear arms.

On the other hand, it is also generally accepted that Iran is conducting suspicious research and is attempting to import equipment and technology relevant to the production of nuclear-weapons material.

Tentative conclusion. This facet of Iranian activities remains a continuing danger. However, the Clinton Administration’s efforts to assist the IAEA in implementing inspections under the NPT, together with multilateral efforts (supported by U.S. intelligence) to restrict clandestine nuclear equipment and technology transfers to Iran, have kept Iran on the defensive and have significantly constrained this Iranian effort.

2. Nuclear weapons (purchase of nuclear weapons material). It is widely understood that security over nuclear weapons materials in the former Soviet Union falls far short of international standards and that the risk of diversion and smuggling of such materials out of the Soviet successor states remains high, particularly from Russia, where the vast proportion of the materials are stored. U.S. officials have testified that Iran has been seeking to obtain such materials at installations in the former Soviet Union. So far, however, Iran is not known to have succeeded in this effort.

The Clinton Administration, with the strong support of Congress, has worked aggressively to cooperate with Russia and other successor states to upgrade security at facilities housing such materials. The United States is also purchasing some 500 tons of weapons usable uranium from Russia for conversion into reactor fuel (which will take it out of harm’s way) and, in an extraordinary initiative known as Operation Sapphire, the United States quietly removed 500 kilograms of highly enriched uranium from an insecure facility in Kazakhstan.

Very serious dangers remain, however. As highlighted in a National Academy of Sciences report being released today, the U.S. program for to work with Russia to enhance material protection, accounting, and control is now starting to bear fruit and "tons" of weapons material are now under world-class security in Russia as a result of the program. But, the report continues, "tens of tons" are under only partial control and adequate security for "hundreds of tons" has yet to be provided. The report concludes that it is essential that the program, which has now built substantial momentum, continue with funding at least at current levels -- or higher if new opportunities to enhance security arise.

Tentative conclusion. Iran’s bid to purchase weapons-grade nuclear materials clandestinely remains a grave threat. U.S. programs are beginning to make important headway in addressing this danger, but years will be needed to bring it under control. Continued Congressional support is essential.

3. Nuclear weapons (civil nuclear energy program). Inasmuch as all facilities in the open Iranian nuclear energy program will be subject to IAEA monitoring, the concern in this sphere is not that particular installations will be misused for nuclear weapons, but that a large civil nuclear energy program will indirectly support the Iranian nuclear weapons effort by training scientists, technicians, and engineers in nuclear specialties. These individuals, in turn, could then switch over to work in a clandestine nuclear weapons program and use their training to help in the construction and operation of possible parallel undeclared nuclear installations.

In 1992, Washington succeeded in persuading China to postpone indefinitely the sale to Iran of a plutonium-producing research reactor. In addition, in 1995, China suspended its plans, announced three years earlier, to supply two 300-megawatt nuclear power reactors to Iran. More recently, China canceled plans to transfer to Iran a sensitive uranium "conversion" plant, able to produce uranium hexafluoride -- a feedstock for the process used to produce weapons-grade uranium. This decision is apparently the result of the diplomatic intervention of the Clinton Administration.

Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program has also slowed. Moscow’s plan for the sale to Iran of a sizable research reactor, suitable for the production of plutonium, appears to have been suspended. Secondly, under U.S. pressure in mid-1995, Russia canceled a contract to supply a highly sensitive uranium enrichment plant to Iran. Russia, however, remains committed to its sale of nuclear power reactors to that country, the first of which it is now building at Bushehr. This sale is consistent with international rules. However, the Administration continues to emphasize its opposition to the sale to the Russian government. Recently, the United States placed another obstacle in the path of the project -- which is already far behind schedule -- by persuading Ukraine not to sell Iran the (non-nuclear) turbine for the facility. At the same time, the Administration has been reluctant to undermine other elements of U.S. relations with Russia by treating this as the most important issue between our two countries; as a result, the Administration has twice waived the provisions of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act that would require a termination of U.S. foreign assistance to Russia unless it ceased all transfers of nuclear equipment and technology to Iran.

Tentative conclusion. By diplomatic interaction with China, the Administration persuaded Beijing to suspend the transfer of the most sensitive of the civilian nuclear plant that Iran has recently sought to purchase. Although Russia has delayed plans to build a sensitive research reactor in Iran, Washington has enjoyed less success in halting Russia’s construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, but, at least, it has slowed this project somewhat.

4. Biological weapons (BW). Controlling the spread of this weapon of mass destruction is probably the most daunting non-proliferation challenge facing the United States and its friends. The necessary technology is widespread in civilian industry, the manufacture of BW is relatively less difficult, and, because BW can be manufactured rapidly and in small-scale facilities, detecting BW programs can be extremely demanding. International controls lag far behind those currently covering nuclear weapons or those that will shortly cover chemical arms under the Chemical Weapon Convention.

The U.S. intelligence community believes Iran has been developing a substantial biological warfare program, and that, as of May 1996, it had acquired its first stocks of biological weapons. If true, this would be the most disturbing act of WMD proliferation during that year. The agency estimates that Iran currently possesses a limited stockpile of biological weapons that it could deploy using artillery, mortars, rockets, and aerial bombs. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is concerned that Iran has the potential to develop a biological warhead for its ballistic missiles, but does not expect this to occur before the end of the century.

China has been implicated in supporting aspects of Iran’s BW activities, but the extent of such involvement is murky and, apparently, has not raised the issue of sanctions.

Let me point out that at the time of the 1991 Gulf War, Saddam Hussein possessed twenty-five missiles with BW warheads, which he considered a part of his "strategic" arsenal -- able to cause mass casualties if used against the cities of an adversary. It is possible that Iranian efforts to achieve a parallel capability will be detected and might be discouraged or deterred.

Given Iran’s progress in the area of biological weapons, the United States and its friends must be prepared with counter-proliferation measures to contain this threat -- especially, defenses, deterrence, and adjustments in military doctrine and strategy.

Tentative conclusion. The Iranian BW threat is already very serious and is likely to worsen. However, Iran still has far to go to develop a mature, missile-based BW capability, and it may yet be possible to block these advances. New strategies need to be developed to address this threat.

5. Basic chemical weapons (including sulfur mustard, phosgene, and cyanide)

The CIA has stated that Iran is continuing to expand and diversify its chemical weapons program, already among the largest in the Third World. The agency estimates that Tehran currently controls a CW stockpile of several thousand tons that includes sulfur mustard, phosgene, and cyanide agents, and has the potential of producing 1,000 tons of these agents each year. The delivery means for these agents include "artillery, mortars, rockets, aerial bombs, and, possibly, even Scud warheads." Importantly, the chemical agents that Iran possesses are World War I era weapons; it has yet to produce more advanced nerve agents, such as Soman, Tabun, Sarin, or VX.

Based on technology dating back to World War I, these CW agents are easy to manufacture. Chinese firms have apparently played a role in supplying CW precursors to Iran, leading to the imposition of sanctions against several firms and persons in 1994 and 1995. In November 1995, referring to Iran’s CW program, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Near East and South Asia Bruce Reidel testified:

  • In the chemical arena, we have seen some evidence that China has provided some assistance or Chinese firms have provided some assistance, both in terms of the infrastructure for building chemical plants and some precursors for developing agents. I would point out here that the Chinese chemical industry is very rapidly growing at this time, and not all facets of it may be under the fullest scrutiny of the Chinese government.

Chinese assistance for either the Iranian basic or advanced CW program is apparently continuing, inasmuch as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Robert Einhorn recently testified that the Administration is reviewing the possible imposition of CW sanctions against Chinese entities. It is not clear to an outsider how extensive Chinese assistance may have been, nor is it clear to what extent the transfers to Iran have been deliberate Chinese policy or have been the result of unscrupulous exporters and a poorly differentiated Chinese export control system.

Tentative conclusion. Obviously, the Administration has not been successful in halting Iran’s basic CW program. It is possible that with more active enforcement of the U.S. chemical weapons sanctions legislation the Clinton Administration might have achieved more, but the details needed to make this assessment have not been made public. It is also important to note that, as yet, Iran has not graduated to the more modern and more potent CW agents that Saddam Hussein possessed. In addition, the entry into force of the Chemical Weapon Convention later this month will reinforce the norm against the possession of chemical armaments and will enhance multilateral export controls, developments that will provide added support for U.S. efforts to curb Iran’s activities in this sphere. To meet the challenge posed by Iran’s existing CW capabilities, the United States and its friends will have turn to counter-proliferation measures: defenses, deterrence, and adjustments in military planning to account for this threat.

6. Advanced chemical weapons (such as, Soman, Tabun, Sarin, and VX) In the case of Iraq, VX nerve gas, mated with Al-Hussein missiles formed the second component of Saddam Hussein’s strategic arsenal. Fortunately, Iran has yet to produce these agents, but it is undoubtedly attempting to do so. As noted in item 5, above, China may be assisting this effort.

It is important to stress that Saddam Hussein made the transition from basic CW agents to more advanced ones in the course of four to five years, with few restraints on his access to outside assistance. Iran, ten years after acquiring basic CW agents, still has not achieved a more advanced capability, suggesting that U.S.-led international efforts to curtail its access to needed technologies may be succeeding.

Tentative conclusion. Given the greater difficulty in producing these agents and the fact that Iran apparently does not yet possess them, assertive U.S. diplomatic efforts -- including the imposition of sanctions against supplier states -- could make the critical difference in arresting this dangerous aspect of Iran’s WMD program.

7. Scud missiles (purchases -- including Scud-Cs with a range of 500 km)

Iran possesses two versions of the nuclear-capable, North Korea-supplied, Scud ballistic missile -- the Mod. B (300-km range) and the Mod. C (500-km range).

On March 6, 1992, the United States imposed sanctions under missile non-proliferation provisions of the Arms Export Control and Export Administration Acts against the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics and against two North Korean entities for engaging in "missile proliferation activities." According to U.S. officials, the activities involved were the transfer by North Korea to Iran of Scud missiles and production technology for such missiles, which resulted in the imposition of "Category I" sanctions, the harsher sanctions under the above-noted laws. On May 24, 1996, Washington imposed less severe Category II sanctions against the Iranian Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics, the Iranian State Purchasing Office, and the Korea Mining Development Trading Bureau for engaging in missile technology proliferation activities. The precise nature of the activities leading to the sanctions remains classified, but U.S. officials have indicated that they involved the provision by North Korea of missile components, equipment, and materials rather than complete missiles, production technology, or major subsystems.

In the period between the two episodes, the United States and North Korea engaged in an extended dialogue, as they negotiated and implemented the October 1994 Agreed Framework, aimed at curtailing North Korea’s nuclear weapon program. As one element of this dialogue, the United States has made clear that it considers North Korea’s missile exports and development of longer range missiles to be issues of great concern. Washington and Pyongyang have yet to hold more than preliminary discussions on this matter, however. Nonetheless, it would appear that between 1992 and 1996, North Korean exports of complete Scud missiles ended and, judging from the fact that the United States imposed only "Category II" sanctions in 1996, it would seem that North Korean missile-related exports to Iran slackened.

Even as it tries to slow further expansion of Iran’s arsenal of Scud’s, the United States must come to terms with the threat currently posed by Iran’s existing Scud-B and Scud-C missiles. In this respect, U.S. theater missile defense programs will play a critically important role and need to be sustained.

Tentative conclusion. For reasons that remain unclear, but which may include the impact of U.S. diplomacy, North Korea is apparently no longer exporting Scud’s to Iran.

8. Longer range missiles (purchases -- North Korean 1,000 km Nodong) Another component of the Iranian missile program is its effort to acquire the 1,000-km range Nodong missile from North Korea, a capability that would enable Iran to target Israel for the first time.

The status of the Nodong is not certain at this time. There have been some indications that Pyongyang’s efforts to develop the system have stalled; according to the published literature, for example, it has been flight tested only once. A recent report in the Japanese press however, states that North Korea has now deployed the system. There have been no reports that North Korea has exported the Nodong, however.

Despite U.S. expressions of concern about the system to North Korea, U.S. officials assume that technical or financial factors, rather than U.S. diplomacy, have delayed the production and/or transfer of the system. The Administration is hoping to halt production and transfer of the Nodong as part of its on-going talks with North Korea on missile exports.

Tentative conclusion. A window of opportunity remains for halting this transfer. With the United States enlarging its diplomatic engagement with North Korea, it may be possible to reach an understanding with Pyongyang to kill this project.

9. Scud and other short-range missiles (indigenous production). Iran is thought to be developing the capability to manufacture the Scud-C indigenously. Presumably, elements of this capability were originally provided by North Korea, and Pyongyang may be supporting this effort through continued exports of missile-related equipment and technology.

However, U.S. officials have indicated that China and Russia may also be contributing to this Iranian effort.

Chinese assistance. In June 1995, U.S. intelligence reports were quoted in the press as stating that evidence "strongly implicates" China in the transfer to Iran of equipment, materials and scientific know-how that could be used in the manufacture of advanced ballistic missiles -- possibly a missile similar to the Chinese M-9 or M-11. In July 1995, China was reported to have transferred "dozens, perhaps hundreds, of missile guidance systems and computerized machine tools" to Iran, as well as rocket propellant ingredients that could be used on its current stockpile of Scud Mod. Bs and Cs, as well as on Scud variants that Iran may produce domestically in the future.

All such transfers would violate pledges that China made to the United States in February 1992 and reaffirmed in October 1994, in which China agreed to abide by missile technology transfer restrictions of the MTCR. These transfers could also violate U.S. missile non-proliferation laws. I am told that the analysis of these cases has been completed, but that the Administration is refusing to take action, apparently because of concern that the reimposition of sanctions against China would adversely affect overall bilateral relations at a time when the Administration is attempting to conduct a "high-level" dialogue with Beijing.

Russian assistance. I have been told that there are a number of transactions involving support for the Iranian Scud production capability that have been traced to Russia but that the Russian government has not been responsive to U.S. efforts to obtain a serious investigation of U.S. concerns.

It appears that the Clinton Administration believes it lacks sufficiently clear evidence to invoke U.S. sanctions laws against Russia or against the Russian entities that may be involved. The matter is made more complicated by the fact that Russia is a member of the MTCR, a status which exempts properly authorized missile-related export activities from U.S. missile-export sanctions laws. The United States can, however, impose sanctions under these laws against Russian entities which make exports not authorized by the Russian government or which fraudulently obtain such authorizations.

To encourage Russia to resolve the cases that the United States has brought to its attention, the Clinton Administration should remind Russia of this provision of U.S. sanctions law.

On the other hand, if Russia is authorizing missile-related exports to Iran, the United States has other mechanisms for penalizing its behavior. These include the selective denial, as a matter of executive policy, of export licenses benefiting the Russian aerospace sector (such as licenses of U.S. communications satellites for launch on Russian launch vehicles) or the refusal to extend current agreements granting Russia access to the international commercial space launch market. The Clinton Administration originally permitted Russia access to this market on condition that it adhere to the MTCR; Russia’s apparent deviations from MTCR rules should provide grounds for revisiting this question.

Tentative conclusion. Iran’s ability to manufacture Scud type missiles is apparently dependent in important respects on outside assistance that appears to be continuing at this time. Intensified U.S. diplomatic efforts, backed up by the threat of new sanctions against the Chinese and Russian aerospace sectors, are needed to help contain this danger. The development of theater missile defenses must also be an important element of the U.S. strategy for meeting this challenge, if non-proliferation efforts fail.

10. Longer range 1,000 to 1,400 km missiles (indigenous production, with outside assistance) Israel has expressed increasing concern about Iranian efforts to develop this system. Again, Russia is alleged to be assisting this program.

A number of recent press reports suggest that Russia is assisting in this endeavor, possibly providing technology from its retired SS-4 strategic nuclear missile.

The application of U.S. sanctions laws and policy is comparable to that outlined in item 9, above: Russia, though largely exempt from such laws, appears to be violating the rules of the MTCR, creating a basis for discretionary sanctions by the United States in the form of suspension of export licenses, especially those directed at the Russian aerospace sector and commercial space launch industry.

Tentative conclusion. Iran’s ability to manufacture this longer range system appears to be dependent in important respects on outside assistance, and Iran appears to be receiving such assistance at this time from Russia. Intensified U.S. diplomatic