It is the kind of foreign-policy conundrum the US increasingly confronts in the buyer's market of the post-cold-war world.
For months, US and Israeli intelligence agencies have monitored sales by Russian firms of missile technology to Iran. Unless quickly halted, they say, the transfers could allow the Islamic Republic to produce by the end of 1999 a ballistic missile that could hit targets across the Mideast, including Tel Aviv.
Coupled with Tehran's alleged pursuit of nuclear, biological and chemical weapons, such missiles could upend the strategic balance in one of the world's most volatile regions. In addition to threatening the security of Israel, they could be used against the pro-Western Arab states and the 20,000 US troops deployed to protect the free flow of Gulf oil.
President Clinton faces hard choices in trying to seal another chink in his policy of "containing" a regime he says sponsors terrorism and seeks to derail Middle East peace efforts. Indeed, a French-led group recently added to these problems when it recently signed a $2 billion gas deal with Iran.
For now, he is spurning calls by the GOP-run Congress to get tough with Russia. Instead, he hopes to persuade Moscow in high-level talks to crack down on cash-hungry Russian firms eager to profit from a global market unfettered by politics or ideology. While pledging to cooperate, Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government denies such sales have occurred. US and Israeli officials, however, say the sales are continuing.
Mr. Clinton could switch gears and invoke antiproliferation laws mandating sanctions on the offending Russian companies, including a ban on doing business in the US. He might also cut financial aid to Moscow unless it blocks further technology transfers to Iran, a move many members of Congress propose.
But such steps carry considerable risks. They could weaken Yeltsin's economic reforms, halt his cooperation in interdicting Iran-bound missile technologies, and could hurt US-Russian cooperation in nuclear arms control and trade. Concedes a senior US official: "This is a very tough challenge."
Stretching the truth?
Clinton's decision is complicated by a dearth of intelligence on critical aspects of the Iranian program and by what US officials say appears to be some Israeli exaggeration of the nature of the transfers.
"Are they [the Israelis] exaggerating what's going on? Maybe in some cases, but not grossly or wantonly," says another US official. "Are they maybe over the top in trying to steamroller us into making certain determinations that are not consistent with our own laws? It's possible."
There are also differences concerning the Russian government's involvement. Israeli officials and congressional sources say there has been high-level connivance, including the Russian Space Agency chief, Yuri Koptev, named by Yeltsin as his point man in talks with the US on the issue.
"I have never seen more convincing intelligence information," says one congressional source. "It was devastating."
Administration officials, however, insist the deals are "freelance efforts." They also say there is no proof of Mr. Koptev's complicity. One official says Koptev has been "a useful interlocutor," driven by concerns that the US could cancel projects with his cash-strapped agency worth $550 million.
There is no disagreement, however, on the basics. Israel first alerted the US last January to the Russian sales to Iran, which has also reportedly received North Korean and Chinese assistance. Since then, the US has confirmed transfers of Russian technologies used in missile design, construction, guidance systems, and engines, officials say.
Russian firms allegedly involved include Rosvoorouzhenie, a state-run arms trading giant, and NPO Trud, a missile manufacturer, as well as the Russian Space Agency and several research institutes. Israeli officials also contend that numerous Russian experts are working in Iran.
Building a better missile
US and Israeli officials say Iran, which already makes a version of the short-range Soviet-designed Scud, is seeking to indigenously produce two new missiles with longer ranges.
The Shibad-3, based on North Korea's No Dong missile, is expected to have a range of 810 miles and a payload of 1,550 pounds. It could be ready for flight testing within a year, US and Israeli officials believe. With continued Russian help, it could go into production by the end of 1999, they say.
The officials add that Iran is also developing a Shibad-4, based on a Soviet SS-4, that is expected to have a range of 1,250 miles.
What is not known, experts say, is the success Iran has had in integrating components obtained from the Russian entities with those from Chinese, North Korean, and other sources. Nor is it clear whether it will succeed in developing nonconventional warheads for its missiles.
"Getting the missile itself and the range is only one dimension. The other is how they will weaponize," says Anthony Cordesman, an expert on Iran at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Administration officials say they have detected some signs that the Kremlin is starting to heed the US demands. They point to an Oct. 2 announcement by the Russian domestic intelligence service that it had thwarted several deals, including the illegal export of rocket fuel pumps.
Pressure on Clinton to take sterner measures, however, are growing. Legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill would end US aid to Moscow unless the president certifies that the transfers have stopped.