The collapse of the Soviet Union created one of the biggest security challenges of recent decades: The task of securing fissile material left unguarded after the empire’s rapid collapse and transferring thousands of forward-deployed Soviet nuclear warheads to places where they would stay out of the wrong hands.
The international community could count a number of successes in the effort to contain the former Soviet Union’s nuclear materials.
The 1994 Budapest Memorandum transferred the Ukrainian, Belorussian, and Kazakh nuclear arsenals to Russia, while the contemporaneous “Megatons to Megawatts” program enabled the US to use material from disassembled Russian warheads in order to fuel American civilian reactors.
But there were still some gaps in the anti-proliferation efforts after the Soviet Union’s fall, as David Hoffman reported in “The Dead Hand,” his Pulitzer Prize-winning 2009 book about the end of the Cold War arms race.
And one of the more alarming failures relates back to the most pressing nuclear proliferation issue of the present day.
As Hoffman reports, Iran immediately positioned itself to take advantage of the loose material, idle weapons scientists, and general chaos left in the Soviet Union’s wake.
In the years after the empire’s disintegration, Tehran recruited Russian rocket scientists, attempted to get ahold of nuclear weapons material, and solicited cooperation from Soviet bloc experts on a possible biological weapons program.
Hoffman’s book shows that Iran began positioning itself for a nuclear weapons capability long before the country’s program became a focus of international attention.
And it shows that there’s a human element to nonproliferation that sanctions, inspection and export control regimes can’t always account for.
The activities Hoffman describes would have been hard to detect through traditional trade monitoring and impossible to find through aerial surveillance. Iran’s activities largely evaded the world’s attention — and fed into a nuclear program that’s now the subject of urgent international diplomacy.
As Hoffman reports, several countries, including Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, scoured the post-collapse Soviet Union for whatever fissile materials or weapons scientists they could pinpoint. But “Iran was especially active,” opening “a special office … in Tehran’s embassy in Moscow to search for and acquire weapons technology.”
‘More scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union than they knew what to do with’
In the mid-1990s Iranians made a concerted effort to attract rocket scientists and their agents in Moscow “approached the prestigious Moscow Aviation Institute, a school for missile and rocket technology.”
Vadim Vorobei, a Russian expert on the construction of liquid-fuelled rocket engines at the institute, noticed that “graduate students from Iran started to appear. They enrolled to study rocket engineering.” Vorobei then agreed to lecture in Iran, becoming part of what Hoffman calls “a larger underground railroad of Russian rocket scientists,” according to the book.
Tehran was soon awash in experts from the former Soviet Union: “Although the Iranians made a show of keeping the scientists apart, Vorobei said, they frequently bumped into each other at hotels and restaurants. One day, he would spot a leading Russian missile guidance specialist; the next, a well known missile engineer from Ukraine. All had been brought to Tehran on the pretext of giving lectures on rocket technology.”
Vorobei said the effort was “a bit of a circus,” since, in Hoffman’s words, “The Iranians brought more scientists and engineers from the former Soviet Union than they knew what to do with.”
There is virtually only one reason to build long-range ballistic missiles, and that’s to launch strategic weapons capable of taking out entire cities or military bases in a single shot.
A ballistic missile is an awkward and expensive way to deliver a conventional payload, and there’s no modern precedent for a country launching conventional warheads 1,553 miles (2,500 kilometers) from their border. All nuclear-armed states possess missiles capable of travelling more than 1,500 miles, but only two non-nuclear states have weapons that can operate at that range: Iran, which likely had an active nuclear weapons program as recently as 2003, and Saudi Arabia, which is certainly keeping its options open.
Iran was actively developing a long-range nuclear delivery system in the early 1990s. But it was also scouring the former Soviet Union for actual bomb material.
“We knew that Iran was all over Central Asia and the Caucasus with their purchasing agents,” said Jeff Starr, a former high-ranking Pentagon disarmament official, according to Hoffman.
“The Dead Hand” reports one particularly worrying close call in 1994: In a warehouse in Kazakhstan where the US helped remove an unguarded stockpile of weapons-grade uranium, a US diplomat noticed “a shipment of beryllium, which is used as a neutral reflector in an atomic bomb, packed in crates.
“Stenciled on the side was an address: Tehran, Iran. Apparently a paperwork glitch was the only thing that had kept the shipment from being sent.”
Iran has indigenous sources of uranium, and material proved to be less important to its weapons programs than expertise.
Today, Iran’s nuclear development is couched in a series of civilian pretexts. Iran claims it needs nuclear reactors for medical isotopes and electricity, even though those isotopes can be easily purchased on the international market, and Iran is a leading oil producer.
Meanwhile, the US has sanctioned dozens of government-linked Iranian entities, including banks, telecoms, and oil companies, for providing civilian cover for various aspects of the country’s nuclear program.
“The Dead Hand” also describes how the Iranians used government-sanctioned front companies to import materials that could be used for the development of biological weapons.
As Hoffman recounts, Andy Weber, a US State Department official who took the lead on securing weapons stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, learned from Russian biological weapons scientists that Iran was searching out experts from Russia’s recently-shuttered program.
From “Dead Hand”:
What really alarmed [Weber] was a discussions with a senior scientist at Obolensk who had been on the trip to Tehran. “‘They talk about pharmaceuticals,’ the scientist said, ‘but it’s clear their interest is in dual use equipment that can be used for biological weapons.'”
The scientists said the Iranians had offered him thousands of dollars to teach in Tehran. And then the scientist took a business card from his wallet, which had been given to him by the Iranians. He showed it to Weber, who immediately recognised the name and the office: a front for the military and intelligence services in their drive to procure Russia’s weapons.
It’s widely believed that Iran had some kind of nuclear weaponization program in the early 2000s and that the country suspended research under international pressure.
But the history of Iran’s procurement efforts leaves little doubt that the country was working towards a weapons capability as soon as Soviet material and expertise became available — even if this decades-old quest for a bomb may have been frozen as Iran and a US-led group of nations work towards a nuclear agreement.
This history also shows just how hard it can be to stop a country that’s committed to developing a strategic weapons program. Iran used academic exchanges, civilian front companies, and clandestine procurement to advance its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities. These are discrete activities with a convincing veneer of legality to them.
With enough patience, and enough time — and without a highly invasive and perhaps unrealistic level of international regulatory scrutiny — a country can gradually build a weapons program, one scientific exchange or illicit shipment at a time.
The methods that Hoffman describes shows just how long Iran has coveted advanced weapons capabilities. And it’s a reminder that plenty of other countries could work towards those capabilities in ways that might take years to finally detect.
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