For some two years there have been public concerns about Russian firms – and perhaps elements of the Russian government – assisting Iran to develop ballistic missiles. Last month Iran conducted the first flight-test of its Shahab-3 missile, thought to have a range of 1300 kilometers when fully developed – far enough to reach all of Israel and most of Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Shahab-3 is said to be based on the North Korean Nodong with substantial Russian assistance in the design and development of the system. Some analysts suspect that Iran is a few years away from fielding the Shahab-4 missile, purportedly based on the Soviet SS-4 (banned by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty) with a range of 2000 kilometers. This range would enable the Shahab-4 to reach most of Egypt and some of Central Europe.


In the absence of the imposition of U.S. sanctions against the Russian entities allegedly involved, Congress acted. On January 27, 1998, it overwhelmingly passed (392-22 in the House and 90-4 in the Senate) H.R. 2709, "The Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act of 1998," sponsored by Representative Benjamin Gilman (R-NY). Under previous missile proliferation sanctions legislation, members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – including Russia – are largely protected from U.S. sanctions. The new act would eliminate this protection, and provide that

  • The President must report to Congress when there is "credible information" that a foreign person after January 22, 1998, has transferred or attempted to transfer items controlled by the MTCR or technical assistance or facilities contributing to Iran's ballistic missile efforts.
  • Sanctions must be imposed on such foreign persons unless, in the case of an attempted transfer, there has been no previous report of such an attempt. The sanctions involve cutoffs, for a period of not less than two years, of all licensed exports, sales of defense items, and U.S. government financial assistance.
  • The President may waive the sanctions if he reports to Congress that he is persuaded that the information on a sanctionable activity is untrue or if he reports that a waiver is "essential" to the national security.



On June 23, President Clinton vetoed the Act, a difficult step because the Act was combined with the implementing legislation for the Chemical Weapons Convention. On July 15, Russia announced that it was investigating nine entities suspected of violating Russia's export controls relating to weapons of mass destruction or missiles to deliver them. On July 28, shortly before Congress had been scheduled to vote on whether to override his veto, President Clinton amended Executive Order 12938, which provided penalties for assistance to chemical and biological weapons programs. The amendment

  • broadened the coverage to include assistance to foreign programs for nuclear weapons and missiles capable of delivering mass destruction weapons – including Iran's missile program,
  • reduced the requirement for imposing sanctions from the former "knowingly and materially" contributing to a foreign program to the new requirement of a "material" contribution,
  • expanded the original Executive Order to include "attempts" as well as actual contributions, and
  • expanded the range of potential penalties to include a cutoff of U.S. Government assistance to and a ban on procurement and imports from the sanctioned entity.

The Administration also announced that, under the amended Executive Order, it would impose sanctions on seven of the nine entities being investigated by the Russian Government. In short, the Administration – by Presidential decision – took many of the measures required by the Act that the President had vetoed five weeks earlier.


There remain a number of areas of dispute between Congressional proponents of the Act and the Administration. These include the questions:

  • Should proliferation sanctions be required by law, and therefore be a more predictable but relatively inflexible deterrent, or be imposed by Executive decision, and therefore subject to considerations of foreign policy?
  • Should the standard of evidence for imposing sanctions in such an important matter as the Iranian missile threat be the relatively easily triggered test of "credible information," or is this too vague and unpredictable?
  • Should the grounds for waiving sanctions be the relatively high one that a waiver is "essential" to national security, or is this too stringent when the standard of evidence for imposing a sanction is relatively low?
  • Is the Administration acting in an inappropriately minimalist fashion to stem Russian contributions to Iran's missile program, for instance, by acting at the last moment and by only imposing sanctions on entities being investigated by the Russian government but not on other Russian entities suspected of aiding Iran?

The U.S. and Russian presidents will meet in Moscow on September 1-2. The question of Russian assistance to Iran's missile program will be a key topic for discussion. After the summit Congress will have until the end of September to vote on whether to override the President's veto. An override requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses in favor of the "Iran Missile Proliferation Sanctions Act."

Richard Speier is a consultant to the Non-Proliferation Project and an expert on missile proliferation.