The Russian missiles we could havestopped

Testimony by Kenneth R.Timmerman

before the House InternationalRelations Committee

Hearing on U.S. Policy towardRussia: Warnings and Dissent


Washington, DC

October 6, 1999

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

I believe that issues of such monumental import for our nationalsecurity should be bi-partisan in nature. And the unanimous supportfor the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 1999, which you championed, iseloquent testimony to that.

But that has not been the case over most of the past 6 years. Infact, partisanship has been the rule, and cooperation the exception.I hope we can begin to redress that as we look at Russia's role inthe proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and at the stunningaccumulation of opportunities we missed to prevent that from everoccurring. So I want to commend you and the ranking member forholding 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 LosAngeles, I was invited to present the conclusions of my study at aconference in Paris. In his inimitable Viennese accent, SimonWiesenthal - who was already well over 80 years old at the time -paid me the greatest compliment I have ever received. "I have spentmy life tracking down the murderers of yesterday," he told theaudience. "Mr. Timmerman is tracking down the murderers oftomorrow."

That is why we are here today, Mr. Chairman: to track down themurderers of tomorrow. For the unchecked flow of Russian technologyinto Iran's missile and nuclear weapons programs, could very welllead to the deaths of many of our fellow citizens tomorrow, as wellas thousands, if not millions, of innocent people in the MiddleEast.

Strobe Talbott and Russia

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

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

Victor Louis's job for the KGB was to serve as a talent scout andwhat we would call today a spin doctor. He planted stories in theWestern press that were favorable to the Soviet leadership and to theKGB, and many reporters got to know him. In 1969, Soviet leaderLeonid Breznev was intent on debunking Stalin and opening a new eraof détente with the United States, to further the SovietUnion's strategic aims. Key to this was planting a carefully-editedversion of his predecessor's diaries with a mainstream Western mediaorganization.

By all accounts, it would appear that Victor Louis leaked theKhruschev diaries deliberately to a young man whose sole journalistexperience until then was working as a summer intern at the Timemagazine bureau in Moscow, Strobe Talbott. It was a great way tostart a career.

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

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

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

Strobe Talbott and the Shahab missile

I have testified in various committees onIran's Shahab andKosar missile programs, which would not exist without directassistance from the government of Russia. The Shahab-3 missile inparticular, which is now deployed in southwestern Iran and is capableof 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 overtheir missile technology transfers toIran illustrates once again aseries of opportunities we missed to prevent post-Cold War Russiafrom going down the dark paths where we encounter her today.

The warnings were visible early on, and they were ignored. Initialinformation on Russian assistance to the Shahab missile programs inIran came from Israeli agents in Russia in 1995 and 1996. TheIsraelis felt confident enough of their information to present adetailed briefing to Mr. Talbott in Washington in September orOctober of 1996. According to one of the Israelis who took part inthe briefing, whom I interviewedin Tel Aviv the following year for Reader's Digest, Mr. Talbotttold them not to worry: he had the situation with Russia "undercontrol."

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

Three months later, by January 1997, the Israelis were gettinganxious. Their sources in Russia were detailing new contracts betweenRussian entities and Iranian missile development centers, andestimated that the missile would be deployed within two years if theRussian transfers and technical assistance was not stopped. So theIsraelis dispatched the head of the Research Department of MilitaryIntelligence, Brigadier General Amos Gilad, to meet with Leon Fuerth,Vice President Al Gore's national security advisor, in late January1997. Mr. Fuerth was alarmed by the exceptional quality of theIsraeli intelligence, and brought it to the attention of the VicePresident, who was reportedly "stunned" by the information.

He shouldn't have been. The U.S. intelligence community had beenreporting for years on Russia's growing military ties with Iran,something which I was able to report on as a journalist as early as1989, when I first interviewed official Soviet arms merchants whoboasted of selling Iran more than 100 MiG-29 fighters at a MiddleEastern arms show. In fact, it was this burgeoning arms trade withIran that initially prompted the administration to establish theGore-Chernomyrdin Commission in 1994, to handle disputes over Russianarms sales to rogue states.

Gore turned to the CIA and was informed that the U.S. was aware ofRussia's assistance to the Iranian missile programs, but did notshare 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 Iranianeffort to acquire long-range missiles would "probably" succeed "inless than 10 years" but not earlier). As for Chernomyrdin, he toldthe Vice President it was "impossible" that Russian state-owned firmswere involved in Iran's missile projects, and demanded that Goresupply him with specific information so he could investigate thematter back in Moscow.

Mr. Gore turned over to the Russians what the Israelis had givenhim through his advisor, Leon Fuerth. Soon thereafter, as several topIsraeli officials told me when I was investigating the matter oneyear later, Israel's sources in Russia "began to dry up." In otherwords, the U.S. through its desire to bend over backwards to meetRussian demands actually helped the Russians identify human agentsworking for Israel on the ground. We don't know what actuallyhappened to them, Mr. Chairman, except that Israel no longer receivedtheir information.

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

So with Russia, our policy was one crisis at a time, one issue ata time. Don't pressure Moscow over missile sales to Iran until theRussians bought on to NATO expansion - something I believe we shouldhave done in 1993 as a unilateral gesture, when the Russians were inno 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 ournational security agenda until the Russians were in a better positionto exact concessions from us.

By April 1997, when U.S. spy satellites detected the plume of theIranian rocket booster test at Kuh-e Bagh-e Melli outside of Tehran,the U.S. intelligence community came around to the Israeli view. ByMay, the CIA had confirmed not only the general outlines of theIsraeli thesis, but had identified other Russian entities that werecooperating with the Iranians to design and build the new missiles.They also identified Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian SpaceAgency, as one of the officials who was directly involved in theIranian 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. Intestimony before a Senate Governmental Affairs Subcommittee on June5, deputy assistant secretary of state for nonproliferation RobertEinhorn displayed an unusual moment of pique. "We have pressed theRussian leadership at the highest levels and we have been told thatit is not Russia's policy to assist Iran's long-range missileprogram," he said. "But the problem is this: There's a disconnectbetween those reassurances, which we welcome, and what we believe isactually occurring."

Because of Talbott's concerns over NATO expansion and his desirenot to anger the Russians, it was not until July that the White Housedecided to kick the issue into high gear, naming veteran diplomatFrank Wisner as special envoy to Moscow. Wisner was to conduct ajoint investigation with the Russians into the U.S. and Israeliallegations. The man the Russians appointed to be his counterpart wasnone other than Yuri Koptev, the head of the Russian Space Agency -the same man the CIA had identified as being one of the drivingforces behind the cooperation with Iran. "He was a good choice forthe Russians," an Israeli official quipped, "since he knows where allthe bodies are buried. He knows what secrets to really protect."

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

But while the Russians and the Americans kept talking, Russiantechnicians continued to travel to Iran, the Iranians continued towork in Russian weapons labs, and shipments of vital missilecomponents continued to reach Iran.

By late summer 1997, the Israelis had concluded that it was aRussian government policy to assist Iran in these projects. It mayalso have been the intention of Strobe Talbott to see Iran armed withlong-range missiles that would finally keep pesky Israel undercontrol. I think you should ask Mr. Talbott that question.

In late September 1997, the Israeli Foreign Ministry's top armscontrol official, Shimon Shtein, provided new information to Talbottduring a visit to Washington on Russia's assistance to Iran.According to an Israeli press account of the meeting, Talbott warnedShtein 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 letterexpletives, Talbott said he would see to it that U.S. aid to Israelwas reduced if the Israelis continued to go behind his back toCongress.

I spoke with Shimon Shtein in Tel Aviv shortly after thisencounter. He confirmed the meeting with Talbott, but would notcomment on what had occurred. Talbott's angry and threatening wordswere read to me from a cable by a top advisor to Israeli PrimeMinister Benjamin Netanyahu. "It's very simple," this official said,trying to minimize the import of Talbott's refusal to tackle theissue head on: "We are on the receiving end of these missiles,whereas Talbott views it in the broader context of U.S.-Russianrelations." In my view, that was a very charitable way of puttingit.

The crux of the matter is very simple: for nearly a year, despitehaving detailed intelligence on Russia's involvement with the Iranianmissile programs, the U.S. government failed to press the Russians inany meaningful or effective way. And the official who played thegreatest role in this disaster was Deputy Secretary of State StrobeTalbott. If we had intervened with the Russians when the Israelisfirst came to us in late 1996, the Shahab missile would never havebeen tested successfully two years later, and would probably still beon the drawing board. Instead, not only have the Iranians deployedthe Shahab-3, they have also begun work on a 4,500 kilometer-rangemissile known as "Kosar," which is being disguised as a satellitelaunch vehicle. As with the Shahab-3 and Shahab-4, Kosar will bepowered by a Russian-designed booster rocket - again, thanks toStrobe Talbott and his steadfast refusal to pressure the Russiansover these transfers or to put Russians non-proliferation behavior atthe center of our relationship with Moscow.

Getting back on track

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

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

During the Reagan administration, we repeatedly took some of ourbest allies to task for shipping advanced defense productiontechnology to the Soviet Union. Some of you will remember the Toshibamachine-tool case. But there were many, many more such cases,involving French, German, even British companies. Did a vigorousexchange between the U.S. and our allies inalterably damage thoserelationships? It did not. Friends and allies can speak frankly toone 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 continuebuilding up WMD capabilities in countries like Iran and Iraq, becausethey see this to be in their strategic interest. We have powerfultools and pressure we can bring to bear. It's time to start usingthem.

Congressional action

I would also offer a few concrete proposals for Congressionalaction.

1) Congress should establish a blue ribbon panel to include across section of Russia experts, policy analysts, andnonproliferation experts, to take a fresh look at how we might engageRussia 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 onthe 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 effortsspearheaded by Mr. Weldon and other members to establish directparliamentary ties with the Russian Duma. It is clear thatsignificant segments of the Russian political establishment rejectthe kleptocracy established by President Yeltsin and his topadvisors, and supported by Mr. Talbott. We need to reach out to theseRussian patriots, engage them, and support them where our interestscoincide.

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

4) You have passed excellent legislation with the IranNonproliferation Act of 1999. But now, Mr. Chairman, you need tobegin rigorously monitoring it and holding the administration's feetto the fire. I would recommend that you hold regular oversighthearings, and if the administration continues to temporize, that youwaste no time in making that bill's sanctions mandatory andbinding.

5) Although I have not discussed this in my presentation, it isclear that Russia has diverted huge sums from the more than $20billion 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 hasbeen diverted. Russia's state prosecutor, Yuri Skuratov, who wasfired earlier this year because he was investigating statecorruption, concluded more than a year ago that at least one $4.8billion tranche of IMF funds, transferred in August 1998, made itsway around the world in just three days, ending up in private bankaccounts. Treasury Secretary Treasury Secretary Robert Rubinconfirmed this in Congressional testimony on March 18, 1999 when henoted that most of that $4.8 billion payment "may have been siphonedoff improperly." I would urge that you immediately suspend U.S.payments to the IMF until the IMF supplies a thorough accounting forthe money paid out to Russia. Along with this immediate step, I wouldstrongly support the Russian Economic Restoration and Justice Act,introduced yesterday by Mr. Weldon, which conditions U.S. assistanceand IMF payments to the achievement of real economic reforms inRussia.

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

The Middle East Data Project is an independentconsulting group that specializes in analyzing strategic trade. Itpublishes a monthly investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief.

Some of the source materials referred to in the attached testimonycan be viewed on the Internet at

Kenneth R. Timmerman was the editor of Middle East DefenseNew(MEDNEWS) in Paris from 1987-1993, before returning to the UnitedStates to join the professional staff of the House InternationalRelations Committee. After leaving the House, he worked as aninvestigative reporter for Time magazine, the American Spectator, andReader's Digest, and writes regular columns for the Wall StreetJournal and other publications. He also serves as the ExecutiveDirector of the Foundation for Democracy in Iran, a nonprofit groupthat monitors human rights conditions in Iran that was establishedwith seed money from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) in1996.

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