EWI's 2009 U.S.-Russia Joint Threat Assessment on Iran

Policy Report | May 19, 2009

A confluence of events has presented the Russian Federation and the United States with an unusual opportunity to transform their relationship.

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The unfortunate reality is that trust is at an exceedingly low level between the elites and publics of both nations.Building that trust requires a leap of faith that they can work together on the most difficult issues. The determination to drive such trust-building on a vexing issue was behind the decision of senior Americans and Russians brought together by the EastWest Institute in 2007 to explore if collaboration was possible on the issue of Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear program. Following a tough yet civil private debate in Moscow, the participants—including on the American side General (ret.) James L. Jones, Ambassador Henry Crumpton, and General (ret.) Lance Lord, and a senior Russian delegation led by Presidential Representative Ambassador Anatoly Safonov—agreed that EWI should convene leading scientists from both states to take up the Iran issue and make it the subject of the first JTA—Joint Threat Assessment. It would be an attempt to see if the top scientists and experts of the two states could agree on the nature of the threat posed by Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile program. Our debate in Moscow demonstrated that there was no easy agreement on Iran’s intentions. A great cloud of ‘smoke’ hung over the policy communities of both nations—a mixing of emotions and unsubstantiated reports with facts and policies. There was no dialogue. Instead the issue generated independent monologues fraught with suspicion and distrust. The decision to move forward with a JTA was a risky one. There was no assurance that it could be done.

Indeed, most outside experts told us that the task was impossible. Relations between Russia and the United States had deteriorated to a nadir not seen in decades. Among the major causes for the severe decline were the rushed ballistic missile defense agreements between the United States and Poland and between the United States and the Czech Republic to deploy assets in these European countries to counter a potential Iranian nuclear and missile threat. The United States government viewed this as a defensive move. Was Iran developing a capacity to hit Europe? How long would it take? The Russian government countered that the ballistic missile defense deployment near its borders was surely directed against Russia—an offensive move. Russian leaders and experts dismissed the idea that Iran currently possessed an offensive ballistic missile program capable of striking Europe. The sixteen Americans and Russians who sat around that Track 2 table back in 2007 in Moscow could have stopped at that impasse—but they did not. They agreed that the heart of the issue did not start with either the United States or with Russia but rather with the need to decipher the threat—what were Iran’s technical capabilities? Could the two sides analyze and come to an agreement on the nature of the threat through a joint threat assessment?

Russia and the United States have been in dispute over the timeframe involved for Iran to acquire nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, on the means needed to prevent that from happening, and—in the worst case that it cannot be prevented—the military operational responses available to both sides to defend against Iran’s potential use of nuclear armed missiles. It was agreed that only after capabilities are ascertained can productive political conversations about motives and policy responses follow. Therein lay the mandate for the two teams of scientists, who worked independently and in a series of joint meetings that more often than not lasted well into the night.

Though the Iranian nuclear program has been the subject of detailed forensic public analyses, much less detailed attention has been paid, in public at least, to the Iranian missile program. Claims and counterclaims abound and defy easy understanding by the non-specialist. This report aims to fill that gap by providing a detailed examination of Iranian nuclear and missile capabilities. When might Iran be capable of deploying nuclear warheads? Assuming that Iran can develop that capability, would the proposed missile defenses be able intercept Iranian missiles? What are the possibilities of U.S.-Russian cooperation in this area? These are the vital questions that this report examines and makes its assessments.

The EastWest Institute, for thirty years a bridge in U.S.-Russian and earlier, U.S.-Soviet relations, is proud to present the product of this remarkable team of Russian and American scientists and experts on the subject. That compelling gap—both in terms of independent analysis and in confidence building on Iran’s weapons programs— now has its first bridging document. That it deals successfully with a joint assessment on such an important issue as Iran’s nuclear and missile potential is a tribute to its authors and to the willingness of both governments to enable their scientific communities to cooperate.

EWI worked closely with partner organizations in both Russia and the United States: the Russian Committee of Scientists for Global Security and Arms Control; The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society; and the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University—all of which offered vital support and leadership. This Track 2 effort by prominent American and Russian specialists should provide a way out of the counter-productive and unnecessary friction that has arisen over Iran’s nuclear military potential and responses to it. After all, as both sides have taken pains to point out, a nuclear Iran is in neither state’s interest.

For more than a year, intense discussions have taken place on this first bilateral JTA between Russian and U.S. scientists, some of whom are close advisors to high-level government officials. The drafting of this report was a unique experience of building trust between experts who shape future strategic decisions. We all have learned important lessons through this experience and the EastWest Institute is keen to actively rely on them to expand the model of joint independent expert groups to contribute to finding solutions to pressing threats around the globe. Additional JTAs will be undertaken. To operationalize the findings of this JTA, we are preparing to launch a Joint U.S.-Russia Policy Assessment, as suggested by William Burns, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs (and formerly the U.S. ambassador to Russia). Such a study would offer consensus recommendations on the policy options available to the United States and Russia on the potential Iranian nuclear and missile threat as well as suggest a global regime for dealing with ballistic missile proliferation.

In February 2009, key conclusions of the study were presented to the U.S. National Security Advisor James Jones, Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Secretary of the Russian Security Council Nikolay Patrushev. The first reaction to the draft report from both U.S. and Russian government officials was positive, and provides the basis for hope that both countries will be able to develop constructive policies of cooperation in addressing existing nuclear and missile threats. We are pleased that in recent bilateral meetings between Secretary Clinton and Minister Lavrov the importance of doing joint U.S.-Russia threat assessments has been recognized.

EWI’s mission is to forge collective action for a safer and better world—this joint threat assessment gives policymakers the ability to do just that. We are grateful for the dedicated eff orts by those involved on both the U.S. and Russian sides, who put politics and other commitments aside to off er their impressive analytical skills to this venture. As well as being scientists they were diplomats and skilled negotiators as they worked together to produce this consensus document. Special thanks and recognition are due to David Holloway and Leonid Ryabikhin, who led the U.S. and Russian sides, respectively, in this unique endeavor. A complete listing of scientists and experts engaged in this process is found on the list of contributors. We thank each of them for their diligent work and contributions. It is in no small measure thanks to the patient and determined leadership of Professor Holloway and Dr. Ryabikhin that the diverse teams were able to prepare and present the consensus document that follows. I would also like to extend a special thanks and recognition to Greg Austin, Vice President of Policy Innovation, who began the initial joint threat assessment process at EWI.