The foundation of Iran’s nuclear program can be traced to extensive Chinese and Russian cooperation in the 1990s, according to a former U.S. intelligence official who specialized on Tehran’s program.
“Russian and Chinese cooperation in the 1990s with Iran created the foundation of the Iranian nuclear program today,” said Susan Voss, a former nuclear engineering analyst with Los Alamos National Laboratory who has worked closely with the U.S. intelligence community.
Many analysts in recent years have focused on how Iran obtained the centrifuge technology used at the Natanz nuclear plant and declared to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2002. That design, known as a P1 centrifuge, came from the illicit smuggling network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan.
But much of Iran’s program, including the design of its uranium hexaflouride facility and the reactor used in its Arak heavy water facility to produce plutonium, can be traced to cooperation in the 1990s with China and Russia.
Ms. Voss said Chinese cooperation began in 1987 and continued for about 10 years. It provided Iran with a uranium mining capability by providing specialists as well as the design for its uranium hexaflouride plant.
In the case of Russia, many of Iran’s engineers were trained at Russian nuclear labs in the 1990s as well, she said.
An element of Russian cooperation with Iran was disclosed first in 2009 by the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) when the private group wrote a technical paper describing how the Iranian Arak facility contained an element of its structure that appeared to be a copy of the Soviet-era fuel rod system used in a heavy water reactor to make plutonium.
“ISIS put out a document where they pulled together everything that shows the Arak facility must have been built with Russian support,” Ms. Voss said.
However, she also pointed out that officially the Russian government at the time denied providing that support to Iran, leading her to conclude that the cooperation was carried out covertly.
David Albright, a former weapons inspector and the president ISIS, said the Russian cooperation likely went beyond the heavy water reactor at Arak.
“We know of at least one former nuclear weapons expert in Russia who helped Iran develop a triggering mechanism to set off high explosives in a nuclear weapon,” he said.
Ms. Voss says the Iranians turned to Russia and China for help with their nuclear program after the United States and France curtailed nuclear cooperation with Iran following the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Nonetheless, Ms. Voss says U.S. nuclear cooperation with Iran before 1979 was important.
“We would like to say we are innocent, but we are not that innocent,” she said. “Many of the Iranian nuclear engineers were trained in the United States prior to the Shah’s ouster. Then the training went to China and Russia.”
By the end of the Clinton administration, much of the above-board nuclear cooperation provided by Russia and China to Iran had stopped. But some of it continues to this day with Russian assistance for the Bushehr light water nuclear reactor.
“It is not as though we did not give Russia and China a hall pass to support the peaceful power program in Iran,” said Henry Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Education Policy Center.
“We thought we stemmed the transfers that mattered and the Chinese transfers would not result in a major risk. We were wrong and we looked the other way. In this context, the A.Q. Khan transfers were icing on this proliferation cake.”