Russia's recent announcement that it plans to build two new nuclear plants in Iran prompts concern that it is walking away from non-proliferation efforts.
In November 2014, Russia announced that it would build two new nuclear plants in Iran, in spite of faltering negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme. Days later, Russia told the United States that it intended to curtail US-Russian efforts to secure nuclear materiel left over from the Soviet Union. Western diplomats have always feared that, at some point, Russia would walk away from non-proliferation efforts if it were to be confronted on other issues of international politics, and ensuring Russian cooperation with the West in this field was one of the major rationales behind engagement with Russia. However, Western policymakers seem not to have realised that Russia has, in fact, never been cooperative on non-proliferation: it simply hid its proliferation activities behind a diplomatic smokescreen.
Western diplomats have always feared that, at some point, Russia would walk away from non-proliferation efforts.
It is conventional wisdom in the West that North Korea is the epicentre of missile proliferation. It is supposed to have reverse-engineered the Soviet SCUD (or in the Russian designation, the R-17) missile and then gone on to develop an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM) called Nodong by scaling up the R-17. Both of these missiles, the reverse-engineered R-17 and the Nodong, were then supposedly exported or built under licence in Iran, Pakistan, and other countries.
However, this conventional wisdom is misleading. Reverse engineering is a very complex task that requires intense labour and testing. This testing never occurred in North Korea, and it is not clear if North Korea has sufficient technological expertise or skilled labour to support such a missile development programme. Furthermore, reverse-engineered copies always differ from the original, because some details have to be tailored to local needs and manufacturing processes. However, all of the R-17 missiles exported by North Korea look exactly like Russian missiles and fly exactly like Russian missiles. This is because they are Russian missiles.
Russia has, in fact, never been cooperative on non-proliferation: it simply hid its proliferation activities behind a diplomatic smokescreen.
The Nodong is almost certainly not a North Korean missile. Its engine has a design typical of Soviet standards and it follows 1950s Soviet design patterns. It is probably an early Soviet missile that was produced in small quantities but was never formally introduced into the Soviet arsenal because other missiles quickly outperformed it. Because there is limited knowledge about it in the West, Western experts wonder whether the R-18 or R-19 (two missile numbers probably assigned to pre-production or evaluation missiles) later became the Nodong. The system’s absence from Soviet arsenals made the missile an ideal tool for proliferation.
All liquid-propellant Iranian and North Korean missiles are either Russian missiles or depend on key components from Russia, especially the missile’s engine(s). And there seems to be no shortage of those components: while Iran’s solid-propellant Sejil missile was essentially grounded after sanctions interrupted the import of key components from China, the Iranian missile- and space-launcher programme based on Russian liquid-fuelled missiles continued launching.
Russia knows that Iran’s missile programme is about delivering nuclear warheads, and yet it keeps on selling engines to Iran.
An Iranian defector passed the technical details of Iran’s nuclear weapons design to the West in 2004, and since then, all members of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), including Russia, have known that the “baby bottle” re-entry vehicle fitted to all recent Iranian missiles is based around a 60cm diameter implosion-type nuclear warhead design. The IAEA conducted intensive debate on the blueprints, because the plans suggested the militarisation of Iran’s nuclear programme. However, since 2004, launches of Iranian liquid-fuelled missiles have not declined in frequency. Russia knows that Iran’s missile programme is about delivering nuclear warheads, and yet it keeps on selling engines to Iran.
North Korea was just a black-market proxy for Russia’s proliferation activities. And Russia’s activities were not limited to ballistic missiles. In 2010, Israel agreed to help Russia develop drones, if Russia would refrain from giving Iran the S-300 advanced air defence system. Shortly thereafter, an S-300 look-alike appeared in North Korea, supposedly developed in North Korea. And in 2014, Iran test-fired an air defence missile that looked like a differently painted S-300, now called “Bavar-373”. North Korea was previously operating vintage Russian and Chinese air defence systems from the 1950s and Iran was operating vintage Russian and American systems from the 1960s. It is very unlikely that they could have made such a huge leap forward in air-defence technology within a matter of years.
Nuclear programmes are much more difficult to assess from the outside. Missiles need to be tested, which makes them clearly visible to the outside world. But nuclear programmes are easier to conceal – at least until the first nuclear test. There are hints of Russian-Iranian cooperation on nuclear weapons proliferation, but such collaboration is very hard to prove. Even so, given Russia’s behaviour in other areas, Moscow’s assurances that it will refrain from assisting Iran can hardly be let pass without scrutiny.
Western non-proliferation policies need to be re-calibrated, and the Russian actors who are involved in proliferation must be sanctioned.
Greater Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear energy sector does not indicate a change in Russia’s behaviour, but rather, a continuation of Russia’s proliferation policy on a larger scale. Russia sees non-proliferation as a particular objective of the United States. The US tried to maintain the Middle Eastern political order in the First Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 and then to redesign it in 2003. A nuclear-armed, missile-capable Iran would be an obstacle to any such efforts in the future. Russia, on the other hand, has never even tried to be a responsible stakeholder; it just keeps supporting everyone who opposes the West. This behaviour has always been the same – but now it is becoming more obvious.
Russian irresponsibility is a very serious challenge to the West. The current norms and conventions on non-proliferation were carved out in cooperation with a Soviet leadership that – in its own way – felt some sense of shared responsibility for international peace. Today’s Russia does not feel this way. Therefore, Western non-proliferation policies need to be re-calibrated, and the Russian actors who are involved in proliferation must be sanctioned. Europe should consider whether it really wants to rely on Russian space launching systems for putting satellites in orbit or for lifting cargo to the International Space Station. And ultimately, Europe has to ask itself whether stopping missile proliferation is a realistic goal, or whether a European version of missile defence will sooner or later have to emerge.
 A forthcoming book offers a very detailed technical description of missile proliferation that is highly recommended for reading: Robert H. Schmucker and Markus Schiller, Raketenbedrohung 2.0 – Technische und politische Grundlagen (Hamburg: Kohler & Mittler, 2014). The book explains the many issues, obstacles, and results of missile proliferation and missile programmes in Iran and North Korea in detail and with excellent technical expertise.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.