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CIA CHIEF CALLS RUSSIA A KEY N-SOURCE FOR IRAN

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Iran is counting on Russia as a key source of nuclear materials and know-how in a clandestine effort to become a nuclear power early in the coming decade, CIA Director R. James Woolsey says.

"We believe that Iran is eight to 10 years away from building such weapons, and that help from the outside will be critical in reaching that timetable," Woolsey told a Washington think tank.Woolsey spoke to a conference sponsored by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy last Friday. A text of his prepared remarks was released by the institute Monday.

Nuclear issues were being discussed at Tuesday's summit between President Clinton and Russian President Boris Yeltsin.

"Iran has been particularly active in trying to purchase nuclear materials or technology clandestinely from Russian sources," Woolsey said. He did not elaborate on the Russian connection, but he added that Iran also is trying to buy fully fabricated nuclear weapons as a shortcut to becoming a nuclear power.

Iran, as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, has officially forsworn any nuclear weapons ambitions. It has not acknowledged trying to build nuclear weapons.

Woolsey also sounded an alarm about Iraq's military ambitions.

While noting that enforcement of U.N. sanctions has paralyzed Iraq's nuclear weapons development, Woolsey said President Saddam Hussein is still hiding a chemical weapons arsenal and appears bent on preserving a nuclear weapons potential.

"Iraq has the largest pool of scientific and technical expertise in the Arab world - over 7,000 nuclear scientists and engineers alone," Woolsey said.

He said Iraq is accelerating construction of deep underground shelters and tunnels to produce and store weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical munitions.

Together, Iran and Iraq pose a significant threat to U.S. interests in the Middle East, Woolsey said, even though the two nations fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.

"These two regimes are united in their opposition to the peace process, in their willingness to use terrorism, in their efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, and in their desire to eliminate any outside powers which could thwart their ambitions," the CIA chief said.