By Brian Finlay – Two months ago, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a review of the Energy Department’s Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention (IPP) program-one of many US government cooperative nonproliferation efforts designed to protect America from the threat of catastrophic terrorism. The GAO review criticized IPP for overstating its accomplishments, lacking an enduring relevance sixteen years after the Cold War, and bureaucratic inefficiency. Two Congressional hearings followed, yielding press reports that intimated US taxpayer dollars went to pay Russian scientists working to advance Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Unfortunately, Congress is not getting the facts. The GAO report paints an incomplete picture, and although the implication that America is aiding and abetting the Iranian nuclear program is sensational, it lacks the benefit of being factual.
Established in 1994, the IPP program engages former Soviet WMD weapons specialists, directing their expertise to peaceful work through partnerships with American companies. To date, scientists participating in IPP projects have worked on a broad range of commercial technologies ranging from advanced water filtration to alternative energy sources to innovative treatments for malaria and tuberculosis. While the engagement of individual scientists-the metric by which the GAO judges the merits of the program-has nonproliferation benefits, it is not the only return yielded by IPP investments.
If configured appropriately, the program also makes substantial contributions to economic development in the host country, setting the conditions necessary for trust, transparency, commercial partnerships, and the rule of law. Without nurturing a local constituency that supports America’s nonproliferation goals, much of our post-Cold War investment in the former Soviet Union may be squandered. As target dates for completion of the US-financed activities eliminating weapons and bomb-grade materials in former Soviet countries draw near, local unwillingness to finance equipment maintenance, as well as insufficient local buy-in to preserve security procedures that US taxpayers have spent millions of dollars to institutionalize, threatens the enduring return on our investment. IPP can help prevent this scenario, but the GAO report fails to categorize these benefits.
Regarding purported connections to Iran, two IPP projects were at question. The first project never got off the ground, and the second involved advanced drilling technologies-not nuclear technology that could have supported Tehran’s nuclear ambitions. Undeterred, critics have implied that overheads paid from IPP contracts to former weapons institutes in Russia are fungible and may have been used to prop up a complex that would otherwise have faded. But their math doesn’t work. The Bushehr nuclear deal is purportedly worth upwards of $1.3 billion. The annual IPP budget is approximately $20 million-up to 35% of which can be spent on program management in the United States. The remainder, approximately $13 million, is spread among 100 institutes in five participating countries, with only 3-10% being directed to allowable overheads. That means that overhead payments from DoE to the Russian institute were worth a total of between $22,000 and $75,000. To suggest that this investment propped up the institute benefiting from a billion dollar plus contract with Iran is ludicrous. Elimination of this program would have meant dozens of unemployed former weapons scientists, not an end to the institute or the Bushehr nuclear deal between Russia and Iran.
The GAO raises some legitimate concerns that must be addressed. The IPP program is far from perfect. But the impression left by both the GAO report and the news reports that followed is incomplete, false, and incendiary, and it endangers our ability to achieve our country’s critical nonproliferation and counterterrorism goals. Congress should not allow this program to fall victim to a get-secure-quick motive without recognizing its enduring contribution to the sustainability of our nonproliferation investments.
Brian Finlay co-directs the Cooperative Nonproliferation Program, a multifaceted project designed to accelerate existing efforts and design innovative new initiatives aimed at more rapidly and sustainably securing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, materials, and expertise.