KIEV, Ukraine — President Viktor Yushchenko confirmed Thursday that nuclear-capable cruise missiles were illegally sold to Iran and China under Ukraine’s previous government. In an interview with NBC News, Yushchenko offered the highest-level acknowledgement that the sales, which have alarmed the U.S. intelligence community, indeed took place.
"I confirm this, though I do so with bitterness," the president said.
Yushchenko spoke on the eve of his first visit to the United States since leading a wave of democratic protests last year that overturned an election won by Yushchenko but rigged by his rivals.
Yushchenko said the X-55 missiles, called AS-15s by NATO, were exported under a forged contract that listed Russia as the destination country. A copy of the contract viewed by NBC News appears to bear necessary clearance stamps for the export of 20 missiles to the Russia, which has denied any role in the sale.
U.S. intelligence officials said that China and Iran each took delivery of six missiles. Ukrainian officials have offered conflicting accounts of the number of rockets delivered.
The missiles were sold without nuclear warheads. They were manufactured in 1987 and poorly maintained, if at all, according to a Ukrainian source familiar with the investigation.
Reverse engineering possible
Still, the U.S. intelligence officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the rockets could propel Iran's quest for nuclear weapons several steps forward.
Tehran could reverse engineer the missiles, and double the range of its most powerful rocket, the Shahab-3. The X-55s have a range of roughly 2,000 miles. If the Iranians were successful in duplicating the technology, they could target U.S. military bases and assets in the Middle East — and Iran’s archenemy Israel.
And while the missiles were sold without nuclear warheads, they provide Iran with a model for designing its own.
"It's not the physical item itself that is valuable to the Iranians," one official said. "It's the updated technology they were after."
The "integration of the warhead with the missile" is the key "learning exercise" that the Iranians could gain from the acquisition, the same official said.
Japanese officials have protested to Ukraine over the sale of the missiles, saying that they could also enhance rival China’s weapons delivery capability.
Ahead of his trip to the United States, perhaps anticipating what is expected to be a main theme of discussions in Washington, Yushchenko said he had asked his government for a definitive report on the sale of the X-55s.
"A few days ago, I received report that the sale took place though a series of false individuals," Yushchenko said.
Ukraine’s ‘bandit’ days gone
In an interview in an ornate government mansion near his office in the center of the Ukrainian capital, the president insisted that Ukraine would become a transparent state that fully embraces democracy, in contrast to the "bandit government" of his predecessor Leonid Kuchma.
Meantime, the Ukrainian leader said his health continues to improve from a poisoning that has disfigured his face, the result of an attack he blames on political opponents.
"I feel much better than I did five months ago when it happened," he said. "And it’s very important that we now know more about what kind of poison it was, how it got into me and most importantly, how to fight it."
NBC correspondent Preston Mendenhall is on assignment in Ukraine. NBC investigative producer Robert Windrem contributed to this report from New York.