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The Russian missiles we could have stopped

Testimony by Kenneth R. Timmerman

before the House International Relations Committee

Hearing on U.S. Policy toward Russia: Warnings and Dissent

 

Washington, DC

October 6, 1999

Thank-you Mr. Chairman. It is a pleasure and an honor to testify before this committee, where I had the opportunity to serve six years ago as a professional staff member working on nonproliferation issues and export controls.

I believe that issues of such monumental import for our national security should be bi-partisan in nature. And the unanimous support for the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 1999, which you championed, is eloquent testimony to that.

But that has not been the case over most of the past 6 years. In fact, partisanship has been the rule, and cooperation the exception. I hope we can begin to redress that as we look at Russia's role in the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and at the stunning accumulation of opportunities we missed to prevent that from ever occurring. So I want to commend you and the ranking member for holding this very timely hearing.

In 1992, after I had completed a study on the missile, nuclear, and chemical weapons programs of three Middle Eastern "rogue" states - Iran, Libya, and Syria - for the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, I was invited to present the conclusions of my study at a conference in Paris. In his inimitable Viennese accent, Simon Wiesenthal - who was already well over 80 years old at the time - paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received. "I have spent my life tracking down the murderers of yesterday," he told the audience. "Mr. Timmerman is tracking down the murderers of tomorrow."

That is why we are here today, Mr. Chairman: to track down the murderers of tomorrow. For the unchecked flow of Russian technology into Iran's missile and nuclear weapons programs, could very well lead to the deaths of many of our fellow citizens tomorrow, as well as thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in the Middle East.

Strobe Talbott and Russia

As members of this committee know well, the architect of this administration's policy toward Russia, Strobe Talbott, was a journalist as I am

Mr. Talbott jump-started his career after a brief stay in Moscow in the summer of 1969, where he had gone with his Oxford roommate Bill Clinton, and met up with a well-known KGB asset named Victor Louis.

Victor Louis's job for the KGB was to serve as a talent scout and what we would call today a spin doctor. He planted stories in the Western press that were favorable to the Soviet leadership and to the KGB, and many reporters got to know him. In 1969, Soviet leader Leonid Breznev was intent on debunking Stalin and opening a new era of détente with the United States, to further the Soviet Union's strategic aims. Key to this was planting a carefully-edited version of his predecessor's diaries with a mainstream Western media organization.

By all accounts, it would appear that Victor Louis leaked the Khruschev diaries deliberately to a young man whose sole journalist experience until then was working as a summer intern at the Time magazine bureau in Moscow, Strobe Talbott. It was a great way to start a career.

Assuming that Mr. Talbott's lifelong association with Victor Louis was totally innocent, it illustrates how a journalist can be used unwittingly by a foreign intelligence service which is smart enough to give him real information for purposes that go beyond a journalist's ability to know.

In preparing a profile of Mr. Talbott two years ago, which I would ask the Chair's permission to include in the record of this hearing, I examined Strobe Talbott's public positions toward the Soviet Union, Israel, and disarmament issues during the Cold War. Mr. Talbott was a great champion of détente, an enemy of President Reagan's initiative to deploy Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe in the early 1980s, urged the U.S. to end its support for Israel, and wrote an entire book portending imminent doom because Mr. Reagan had walked out on a Soviet arms proposal in Geneva. It is my opinion that Strobe Talbott consistently misread America's interests during the Cold War, and he continues to do so today. And like so many others in this town, he continues to get rewarded for being consistently wrong.

I dwell on Mr. Talbott's record because this administration's policy toward Russia, its unwavering and uncritical support for Boris Yeltsin in the face of mounting evidence of criminal corruption and anti-American policies, has been largely shaped and controlled on a day-to-day basis by Strobe Talbott.

Strobe Talbott and the Shahab missile

I have testified in various committees on Iran's Shahab and Kosar missile programs, which would not exist without direct assistance from the government of Russia. The Shahab-3 missile in particular, which is now deployed in southwestern Iran and is capable of targeting Israel with nuclear, chemical, or biological warheads, should in my view have Strobe Talbott's name written all over it.

Mr. Talbott's consistent refusal to confront the Russians over their missile technology transfers toIran illustrates once again a series of opportunities we missed to prevent post-Cold War Russia from going down the dark paths where we encounter her today.

The warnings were visible early on, and they were ignored. Initial information on Russian assistance to the Shahab missile programs in Iran came from Israeli agents in Russia in 1995 and 1996. The Israelis felt confident enough of their information to present a detailed briefing to Mr. Talbott in Washington in September or October of 1996. According to one of the Israelis who took part in the briefing, whom I interviewed in Tel Aviv the following year for Reader's Digest, Mr. Talbott told them not to worry: he had the situation with Russia "under control."

The Israelis expected something to happen; shipments from Russia to Iran to be blocked, or some other form of U.S. intercession with the Russian government. There was none of this. Mr. Talbott took the Israeli information, and promptly relegated it to his "inactive" file.

Three months later, by January 1997, the Israelis were getting anxious. Their sources in Russia were detailing new contracts between Russian entities and Iranian missile development centers, and estimated that the missile would be deployed within two years if the Russian transfers and technical assistance was not stopped. So the Israelis dispatched the head of the Research Department of Military Intelligence, Brigadier General Amos Gilad, to meet with Leon Fuerth, Vice President Al Gore's national security advisor, in late January 1997. Mr. Fuerth was alarmed by the exceptional quality of the Israeli intelligence, and brought it to the attention of the Vice President, who was reportedly "stunned" by the information.

He shouldn't have been. The U.S. intelligence community had been reporting for years on Russia's growing military ties with Iran, something which I was able to report on as a journalist as early as 1989, when I first interviewed official Soviet arms merchants who boasted of selling Iran more than 100 MiG-29 fighters at a Middle Eastern arms show. In fact, it was this burgeoning arms trade with Iran that initially prompted the administration to establish the Gore-Chernomyrdin Commission in 1994, to handle disputes over Russian arms sales to rogue states.

Gore turned to the CIA and was informed that the U.S. was aware of Russia's assistance to the Iranian missile programs, but did not share Israel's concern over the urgency of the problem. (Indeed, acting CIA Director George Tenet testified to Congress on Feb. 6, 1997 - the same day Gore met with Chernomyrdin - that the Iranian effort to acquire long-range missiles would "probably" succeed "in less than 10 years" but not earlier). As for Chernomyrdin, he told the Vice President it was "impossible" that Russian state-owned firms were involved in Iran's missile projects, and demanded that Gore supply him with specific information so he could investigate the matter back in Moscow.

Mr. Gore turned over to the Russians what the Israelis had given him through his advisor, Leon Fuerth. Soon thereafter, as several top Israeli officials told me when I was investigating the matter one year later, Israel's sources in Russia "began to dry up." In other words, the U.S. through its desire to bend over backwards to meet Russian demands actually helped the Russians identify human agents working for Israel on the ground. We don't know what actually happened to them, Mr. Chairman, except that Israel no longer received their information.

Despite this, the Israelis continued to bring fresh information to Washington, where they met with Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, who rebuffed them at every step of the way. "We understood the that the Americans had a larger agenda with Russia," the secretary general of Israel's Defense Ministry, General David Ivry told me in Tel Aviv. "Until NATO expansion was completed, they sought to put off all other issues."

So with Russia, our policy was one crisis at a time, one issue at a time. Don't pressure Moscow over missile sales to Iran until the Russians bought on to NATO expansion - something I believe we should have done in 1993 as a unilateral gesture, when the Russians were in no position to pose obstacles to our setting a term to the Cold War. Instead, largely at Mr. Talbott's urging, we put off that part of our national security agenda until the Russians were in a better position to exact concessions from us.

By April 1997, when U.S. spy satellites detected the plume of the Iranian rocket booster test at Kuh-e Bagh-e Melli outside of Tehran, the U.S. intelligence community came around to the Israeli view. By May, the CIA had confirmed not only the general outlines of the Israeli thesis, but had identified other Russian entities that were cooperating with the Iranians to design and build the new missiles. They also identified Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Space Agency, as one of the officials who was directly involved in the Iranian projects.

By early June, the U.S. intelligence was cut and dried, but U.S. diplomacy was unsuccessful in convincing the Russians to back off. In testimony before a Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on June 5, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation Robert Einhorn displayed an unusual moment of pique. "We have pressed the Russian leadership at the highest levels and we have been told that it is not Russia's policy to assist Iran's long-range missile program," he said. "But the problem is this: There's a disconnect between those reassurances, which we welcome, and what we believe is actually occurring."

Because of Talbott's concerns over NATO expansion and his desire not to anger the Russians, it was not until July that the White House decided to kick the issue into high gear, naming veteran diplomat Frank Wisner as special envoy to Moscow. Wisner was to conduct a joint investigation with the Russians into the U.S. and Israeli allegations. The man the Russians appointed to be his counterpart was none other than Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Space Agency - the same man the CIA had identified as being one of the driving forces behind the cooperation with Iran. "He was a good choice for the Russians," an Israeli official quipped, "since he knows where all the bodies are buried. He knows what secrets to really protect."

Two months later, Wisner and Koptev presented a joint report to Gore and Chernomyrdin, who were holding their bi-annual meeting at a resort outside of Moscow. Speaking to reporters, Gore called the investigation "extremely thorough," and that "new information has been brought to light."

But while the Russians and the Americans kept talking, Russian technicians continued to travel to Iran, the Iranians continued to work in Russian weapons labs, and shipments of vital missile components continued to reach Iran.

By late summer 1997, the Israelis had concluded that it was a Russian government policy to assist Iran in these projects. It may also have been the intention of Strobe Talbott to see Iran armed with long-range missiles that would finally keep pesky Israel under control. I think you should ask Mr. Talbott that question.

In late September 1997, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's top arms control official, Shimon Shtein, provided new information to Talbott during a visit to Washington on Russia's assistance to Iran. According to an Israeli press account of the meeting, Talbott warned Shtein that if Israel didn't stop feeding information to the U.S. Congress and the media about the missile programs, it would "seriously undermine" U.S.-Israeli relations. Using four letter expletives, Talbott said he would see to it that U.S. aid to Israel was reduced if the Israelis continued to go behind his back to Congress.

I spoke with Shimon Shtein in Tel Aviv shortly after this encounter. He confirmed the meeting with Talbott, but would not comment on what had occurred. Talbott's angry and threatening words were read to me from a cable by a top advisor to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It's very simple," this official said, trying to minimize the import of Talbott's refusal to tackle the issue head on: "We are on the receiving end of these missiles, whereas Talbott views it in the broader context of U.S.-Russian relations." In my view, that was a very charitable way of putting it.

The crux of the matter is very simple: for nearly a year, despite having detailed intelligence on Russia's involvement with the Iranian missile programs, the U.S. government failed to press the Russians in any meaningful or effective way. And the official who played the greatest role in this disaster was Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. If we had intervened with the Russians when the Israelis first came to us in late 1996, the Shahab missile would never have been tested successfully two years later, and would probably still be on the drawing board. Instead, not only have the Iranians deployed the Shahab-3, they have also begun work on a 4,500 kilometer-range missile known as "Kosar," which is being disguised as a satellite launch vehicle. As with the Shahab-3 and Shahab-4, Kosar will be powered by a Russian-designed booster rocket - again, thanks to Strobe Talbott and his steadfast refusal to pressure the Russians over these transfers or to put Russians non-proliferation behavior at the center of our relationship with Moscow.

Getting back on track

Ultimately, Russia has far more to gain by engaging the United States and winning commercial space launch contracts and development deals with U.S. defense contractors, than it does with Iran. But this administration's policy of turning a blind eye to Russian misdeeds, has allowed the Russian Space Agency and its hundreds of subsidiaries to believe it can have it both ways.

The bipartisan approach of this committee, that led to the unanimous passage of the Iran Nonproliferation Act on September 14, is a first step, and a major one, to putting our relationship with Russia back on track.

During the Reagan administration, we repeatedly took some of our best allies to task for shipping advanced defense production technology to the Soviet Union. Some of you will remember the Toshiba machine-tool case. But there were many, many more such cases, involving French, German, even British companies. Did a vigorous exchange between the U.S. and our allies inalterably damage those relationships? It did not. Friends and allies can speak frankly to one another behind closed doors. That's what diplomacy is for.

It's time to stop turning a blind eye to Russia's misdeeds, Mr. Chairman. Because if we don't, the Russians are going to continue building up WMD capabilities in countries like Iran and Iraq, because they see this to be in their strategic interest. We have powerful tools and pressure we can bring to bear. It's time to start using them.

Congressional action

I would also offer a few concrete proposals for Congressional action.

1) Congress should establish a blue ribbon panel to include a cross section of Russia experts, policy analysts, and nonproliferation experts, to take a fresh look at how we might engage Russia while holding her responsible for her misdeeds. The "B-team" initiative of the Potomac Foundation could serve as a model here, with its successful efforts to identify and engage interlocutors on the Russian side who are not tainted by the widespread corruption, such as nuclear scientist Dr. Evgeny Velikhov.

2) Similarly, I strongly encourage you to pursue the efforts spearheaded by Mr. Weldon and other members to establish direct parliamentary ties with the Russian Duma. It is clear that significant segments of the Russian political establishment reject the kleptocracy established by President Yeltsin and his top advisors, and supported by Mr. Talbott. We need to reach out to these Russian patriots, engage them, and support them where our interests coincide.

3) The administration is proposing to spend an additional $600 million to fund Russian nuclear scientists, the so-called "Nuclear Cities Initiative." The Government Account Office found earlier this year that much of the money spent so far on similar programs has been diverted, and may have actually helped the Russians to develop better nuclear weapons, missiles, and biological weapons. I would urge you to immediately freeze all funding to Department of Energy and Department of State nonproliferation programs in Russia until a thorough GAO review has been conducted and alternate proposals have been examined. Most of the former project directors engaged in the DoE and State programs in Russia I interviewed earlier this year believe we can do much better by starting from scratch and focusing our aid on creating viable commercial ventures that get the scientists out of the nuclear cities, instead of keeping them there, as the administration's plan does. (I would ask that my article, entitled "Russo-American Nuclear Cities," from the July 1999 issue of the American Spectator, be submitted for the record to provide members with background on this issue).

4) You have passed excellent legislation with the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 1999. But now, Mr. Chairman, you need to begin rigorously monitoring it and holding the administration's feet to the fire. I would recommend that you hold regular oversight hearings, and if the administration continues to temporize, that you waste no time in making that bill's sanctions mandatory and binding.

5) Although I have not discussed this in my presentation, it is clear that Russia has diverted huge sums from the more than $20 billion in IMF financing they have received over the past few years. It is not enough for the IMF to claim that none of this money has been diverted. Russia's state prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, who was fired earlier this year because he was investigating state corruption, concluded more than a year ago that at least one $4.8 billion tranche of IMF funds, transferred in August 1998, made its way around the world in just three days, ending up in private bank accounts. Treasury Secretary Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin confirmed this in Congressional testimony on March 18, 1999 when he noted that most of that $4.8 billion payment "may have been siphoned off improperly." I would urge that you immediately suspend U.S. payments to the IMF until the IMF supplies a thorough accounting for the money paid out to Russia. Along with this immediate step, I would strongly support the Russian Economic Restoration and Justice Act, introduced yesterday by Mr. Weldon, which conditions U.S. assistance and IMF payments to the achievement of real economic reforms in Russia.

I am not very hopeful that this administration, with Mr. Talbott at the helm of our Russia policy, is going to suddenly see the light in its waning days. Therefore, I believe Congress has a significant role to play, and should step up to the plate.


The Middle East Data Project is an independent consulting group that specializes in analyzing strategic trade. It publishes a monthly investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief.

Some of the source materials referred to in the attached testimony can be viewed on the Internet at www.iran.org

Kenneth R. Timmerman was the editor of Middle East Defense New(MEDNEWS) in Paris from 1987-1993, before returning to the United States to join the professional staff of the House International Relations Committee. After leaving the House, he worked as an investigative reporter for Time magazine, the American Spectator, and Reader's Digest, and writes regular columns for the Wall Street Journal and other publications. He also serves as the Executive Director of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a nonprofit group that monitors human rights conditions in Iran that was established with seed money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in 1996.

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