A Proliferation of Mistakes?

/ by Lionel Beehner /

Experts begin to rethink US efforts to keep nukes in friendly hands.

©Photograph by IML Image Group Ltd/Alamy.

The image of the idle Russian scientist, desperate for cash and teeming with nuclear know-how, has haunted American foreign policymakers since the fall of the Soviet Union. Seeking to keep idle hands from the devil’s work, in 1994 the US Department of Energy began bankrolling dozens of scientific institutes throughout the former Soviet Union. A crisis was apparently averted, and the seemingly successful programs have continued through today. But a January 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) revealed that two of the Russian institutes receiving US funds had shipped nuclear equipment to a reactor in Iran. The revelation that a nonproliferation program may in fact have abetted nuclear proliferation prompted calls on Capitol Hill to pull the plug.

To supporters of anti-proliferation efforts, funding Russian research is the foreign-policy equivalent of handing a schoolyard bully crayons and coloring books: Keeping him busy is meant to keep him out of trouble. The program that the GAO reviewed, called the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP), took that idea a step further, asking the bullies to draw like Marc Chagall. Matching US companies up with underemployed ex-Soviet scientists was meant to spur technological innovation. Brian Finlay, codirector of the Henry L. Stimson Center’s Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, says the Russian approach to science differs significantly from the West’s: “There is a wealth of innovation we can capitalize on.” Every year there are more businesses in line than there is IPP money to fund them. And handing out crayons can turn a bully into something of a teacher’s pet. “We’re finding things out,” says Matthew Bunn, of Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. “It’s greatly underappreciated how much we have learned from these kinds of programs about what goes on in Russian institutions.” For example, when a delegation of Iranian nuclear scientists visits their Russian counterparts, the US intelligence community learns about it.

Nevertheless, the GAO has uncovered a number of problems. There are the suspicions that the IPP’s funds are subsidizing Iran’s nuclear program. Although Bunn discounts as “utter nonsense” the notion that the program has had any impact on Iran’s nuclear program—the reactor in question, Bushehr, constitutes a multibillion-dollar project, compared with a $20 million US program—giving any support to Iran could have violated US law.

Furthermore, the average Russian physicist hasn’t proved to be much of a bully, leading the GAO to argue that the IPP program has outlived its usefulness. Russia is no longer struggling as it was after the Soviet Union collapsed; it can fund its research centers on its own. Plus, as the GAO report noted, the IPP—unlike similar programs in the Department of State—has no method to “graduate” institutes from the program, lacks adequate oversight, and often funds scientists that have had nothing to do with weapons programs. According to the GAO, even the heads of ex Soviet weapons institutions are questioning what anti-proliferation purpose the IPP serves. Lastly, the GAO complained that the program has begun unauthorized projects in Libya and Iraq.

Of course, that might be the smart move: Andrew Grotto, of the Center for American Progress, argues that the future of anti-proliferation efforts lies elsewhere. “I would want to look at other countries,” he says. Even though Soviet scientists had a higher level of expertise than those in Libya or Iraq, who languished under UN sanctions in the 1990s, Grotto is not convinced the Soviet-oriented IPP program “gives us enough bang for our buck.” Potential proliferators of weapons technology, after all, are hardly limited to the former USSR. Across the developing world, there are hordes of scientists and engineers with nothing but time on their hands and skills to sell. Chances are good the next A.Q. Khan will not be Russian.

Originally published May 27, 2008

Tags policy security technology

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