US –Russian aid programme said to help finance Iran’s nuclear ambitions

Publish date: February 7, 2008

Written by: Charles Digges

In the continuing US Congressional investigation of a post-Soviet programme to employ Russian nuclear weapons scientists to prevent them from selling their expertise, a congressional committee has said US Department of Energy (DOE) funding has assisted in building Iran’s Bushehr reactor.

The Russian built reactor in the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr has been for years the source of US friction with Moscow, who Washington has accused of providing technology to Iran’s contentious nuclear programme.

The news that US money has been used by Russian scientific institutions to develop key components for the $1 billion light water reactor in Bushehr comes on the heels of several missile test conducted by Iran that show it has the ability to deliver a nuclear attack – an exercise that caused Russia’s foreign ministry to issue an official statement that Moscow could possibly have misjudged Iran’s motivation for embracing nuclear power.

It also comes as a source of bitter embarrassment for the US establishment, which has been railing against Iran’s nuclear programme for nearly a decade.

The Bush administration expressed confidence that no projects under DOE the programme support nuclear work in Iran. Similarly, the DOE issued a statement saying: “We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the department’s scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran.”

“We take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern,” the department said.

But Michigan democratic representative John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, citing Russian sources, raised questions about the programme and its possible link to Iran in a letter Wednesday to DOE chief Samuel Bodman.

Dingell cited information his committee had received from Russian sources indicating that the DOE’s embattled Initiative for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) programme had unwittingly been financing Russia’s work on the Bushehr reactor.

In a telephone interview, Dingell pointed out that the State Department has accused Iran of using the Bushehr reactor as a cover for obtaining nuclear technologies useful in a weapons programme.

“We’ve got a bunch of Federal laws that impose sanctions on US companies that develop Iran’s oil,” he said, adding, “Here we’ve got US money providing assistance to help develop a reactor that we’re busy denouncing.”

In the letter to Bodman, Dingell, along with another Democratic Michigan congressman, Bart Stupak, who is chairman of the investigations subcommittee, wrote: "It is troubling that DOE would subsidize or otherwise support Russian institutes providing technology and services to the Iranian nuclear programme."

The investigations subcommittee has been auditing the IPP programme since the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) flagged the initiative for sending money to well heeled nuclear research institutes in Russia that the GAO said were no longer in need of US assistance.

The US programme is providing money to more than 100 projects at research institutes in Russia and other former Soviet countries, the NNSA’s website indicates.

Dingell and Stupak asked the DOE to provide information on whether specific scientists helped by the programme were involved in any Iranian reactor work.

The National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) – the DOE subdivision that oversees the assistance programme – said it was reviewing all the projects for any possible link to Iran. In a statement, NNSA spokesman John Broehm said, "We take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern," the Associated Press reported.

Iran has said its first nuclear reactor, the 1,000-megawatt Bushehr power plant, will begin operating this summer after receiving from Russia nearly all the nuclear fuel it needs to go online.

Dingell’s committee held a hearing last month on the aid programme, which began after the break-up of the former Soviet Union. The goal of the programme was to assist Cold War-era Russian scientists find jobs, making it less likely they would sell nuclear information or provide help to terrorists or rogue states. The DOE supplements the salaries of scientists and pays overhead at the institutes at which they work.

The January GAO report said its investigators had found that in many cases the programme was supporting scientists working at thriving Russian research institutes, including those involved in nuclear work.

Documents provided Dingell’s House Energy and Commerce Committee by the investigative arm of Congress included presentations from two leading Russian research institutes involved in the US programme that described work the facilities also did for Iran, the lawmakers said.

Dingell’s committee found that Russia’s Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems, located in Nizhny Novgorod, received $2.65 million for geologic mapping projects. The institute also has worked on automated nuclear reactor controls for Bushehr, according to the documents obtained by the committee.

A second Russian institute, the Federal Scientific and Industrial Centre of Nuclear Machine Buildings, also in Nizhny Novgorod, got $1 million under the DOE’s IPP programme for a project involving radioactive medical waste management, the committee said. Dingell said that the centre, which has built a number of Russian reactors, also worked on water circulation pumps and ventilation equipment at Bushehr.

Dingell and Stupak acknowledged there was no evidence that individual scientists who received assistance from the US programme directly participated in any Iranian nuclear activities.

But Dingell nonetheless had harsh words for the Bush administration and the apparent oversight allowing Russia to spend US money on Iran.

“Only this administration would complain about proliferation in Iran, as part of President Bush’s axis of evil, and then finance it with American taxpayer dollars,” he said.

Stupak called it “schizophrenic foreign policy.”

“We should not be doing business with institutes that help promote Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” he said. Any money going to the institutes frees up money that can then be used on other projects, he said.

At the hearing last month on the anti-proliferation program, a State Department official, Richard Stratford, acknowledged that “you could argue if you give Russia a dollar for whatever purpose, it frees up a dollar that can then be spent elsewhere.” But he said the programme would reduce the risk of proliferation.

The United States pays for a variety of projects at numerous institutes in Russia and other former Soviet countries. At the Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems, which is making control room equipment for Bushehr, the United States is paying $1.15 million for a project for radar mapping of geologic structures, which could be used to locate underground mineral deposits.