As the White House forges a new strategic relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Jewish leaders and congressional legislators are urging the Bush administration to press Russia to curb technology transfers to Iran.
“We’ve been assured that he will raise this issue,” Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said of President Bush, who will meet with Putin in Russia beginning Friday.
For years, Israel and the American Jewish community have been concerned about the sale of nuclear technology and Russia’s sharing of nuclear information with Iran.
Although pro-Israel activists are focusing even more on Mideast diplomacy because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they stress that Russian-Iranian ties are still an issue the White House needs to address.
“It has been eclipsed, but it remains a priority,” Hoenlein said. “Iran remains the fulcrum of the international terrorist network and a major state sponsor of terrorism.”
Russian-Iranian ties have also remained an issue for Congress. Members of both houses sent separate letters to Bush this week, urging him to press Russia on its ties with Iran during their summit.
Jewish leaders and lawmakers are hoping Bush will stress the need for Russia to break its nuclear ties with Iran for Russia’s own benefit, as well as for the benefit of the United States and the international community in the struggle against terrorism.
“Time is running out, and without a sustained and meaningful effort on the part of the Russian government to stop dangerous exports now, we will soon be faced with an altered and hugely more threatening security environment in an area vital to our own strategic interests,” said the letter signed by 34 members of the House of Representatives.
The State Department recently reiterated its description of Iran as “the most active state sponsor of terrorism” and Bush named it as part of the “axis of evil.” It recently has been accused of smuggling weapons to the Palestinian Authority for use against Israelis, and any nuclear capability it acquires is considered a direct threat to Israeli security.
Recent intelligence says Iran may reach nuclear capability within three to five years.
Russia is considered the primary source for both technology and information that Iran has garnered toward establishing this nuclear capability. According to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Russia has provided engines, guidance systems and warhead technologies for Iranian missiles, and has rebuilt a nuclear reactor that provides cover for Iran’s nuclear weapon projects.
“It’s a very extensive problem,” said Marvin Feuer, director of defense and strategic issues for AIPAC. “It involves everything from warhead technologies and helping Iran design weapons to the basics of the Iranian program.”
Analysts say the amount of nuclear information and weapons being sent to Iran is manageable, if Russia made a priority of stopping it. That would entail more carefully review the licensing of exports and preventing scientists who worked on nuclear proliferation during the Cold War from traveling to Iran.
But the question is whether Russia has been negligent in controlling sales to Iran or whether the sales are part of a conscious strategy. There is agreement that some companies and entities profit from the Russian sales to Iran, but it is unclear whether the government profits.
Those who say Russia is involved in a strategic alliance with Iran say the Russians believe Iran is going to gain access to nuclear weapons with or without Russian aid, and that Russian support provides a cooperative relationship that can prevent Iran from targeting Russia in the future.
Others say Russia believes a nuclear Iran would be a threat and that Russia should be more active in stopping the trade.
“On the one hand, Russians look to Iran, and they’re scared,” said Harold Luks, chairman of NCSJ: Advocates on Behalf of Jews in Russia, Ukraine, the Baltic States & Eurasia. “But on the other hand, the Russians look to Iran and see an open market.”
Congress has taken several actions over the years designed to thwart countries — including Russia — from dealing with Iran. The latest was the renewal last year of the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act, which calls for sanctions against foreign companies that invest in Iran’s energy sector.
In 2000, Congress passed the Iran Non-Proliferation Act, which required the president to report to Congress about entities providing nuclear technology to Iran and either sanction them or grant them a waiver. The bill also limited U.S. assistance to the Russian space agency until Russia takes action against proliferation of nuclear materials to Iran.
In addition, half of the annual U.S. aid to Russia unrelated to nonproliferation programs is withheld each year until the president can certify that Russia is not aiding Iranian nuclear programs.
“What the United States is asking Russia to do is adhere to international agreements and what is stated Russian policy,” Feuer said.
Bush’s meeting with Putin comes a week after the United States and Russia agreed to cut their nuclear arsenals by two-thirds. But Feuer said there has been no indication that the improving relationship between the two states has led to progress on the Iranian front.
Still, it may open the door to future agreements that include provisions on exports to Iran, analysts said.
“We are at the start of a new strategic relationship with Russia,” Feuer said. “If it’s a very important matter for the United States, it could be at the core of the relationship.”
While the Clinton administration stressed the Iranian issue with the Russians, the Bush White House has yet to call publicly on Russia to end its nuclear ties with Iran. American Jewish leaders hope Bush will use his upcoming trip as an opportunity to express publicly views that he has said in private to the American Jewish community.
“The United States has an obligation to go to the Russians, very clearly and very specifically, and state what our concern is,” Luks said. “And I think that’s been done.”
Bush’s trip will include one gesture to the Jewish community — a visit to a St. Petersburg synagogue. Bush will participate in a program Sunday at the Choral Synagogue, though details have not been released.
The synagogue, which is led by St. Petersburg Chief Rabbi Mendel Pewzner, opened in 1893. Recently, it has been restored.
Some Jewish leaders had been concerned that Bush would meet with Lubavitch leadership in Russia but not other Jewish groups. But last week Bush reportedly told the leadership of the United Jewish Communities, the umbrella organization of North American Jewish federations, that he sought to invite a diverse Jewish audience to the event.
Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities of the Commonwealth of Independent States, said Bush’s visit will be “an incredible boost” for the Jewish community in Russia.
It will show the administration’s support for the Jewish community and will be seen as “an important show of support for religious freedom,” Berkowitz said.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.