Ukrainian weapons dealers smuggled 18 nuclear-capable cruise missiles to Iran and China during former President Leonid Kuchma’s administration, prosecutors said Friday. The missiles have the range to reach U.S. allies.
A senior U.S. official tells NBC News that U.S. intelligence believes Ukraine did indeed sell the long-ange cruise missiles to Iran and China in the last four years, as the Ukrainian Prosecutor General's Office reported.
"The thrust of that report is accurate. We might quibble with that number, and quibble down, but we would not steer you away from that assessment ... or the destinations," said the official.
The Kh55 cruise missiles were smuggled out of Ukraine four years ago, the Prosecutor General’s office said Friday in a statement. Prosecutors said the missiles, which have a range of 1,860 miles, were sold illegally and were not exported by Ukrainian enterprises.
However, the U.S. official indicated that the intelligence community believes that Ukrainian officials, operating at the highest levels, facilitated the sale of a dozen AS-15 cruise missiles - six each to China and Iran. The AS-15 is a high speed cruise missile with a range of 3,000 kilometers or nearly 1,900 miles. They are air-launched, meaning they can be fired from aircraft.
Although the AS-15 missiles believed provided to Iran and China were not equipped with nuclear warheads, the missiles are nuclear capable, meaning that if Iran and China could fit them with nuclear warheads.
If the missiles are in working shape or can be repaired, they would be the longest ranged missiles in the Iranian arsenal. The Iranians are continuing to test their own Shahab-3 missile which has a range of 1,000 miles.
"The technology is old and the missiles themselves were not in very good shape", said the U.S. official, noting they were "diverted from Soviet stocks" left behind when the Ukraine declared its independence in 1991.
The Associated Press reported exclusively on Feb. 4 that a government probe into lucrative illicit weapons sales by officials loyal to Kuchma has led to secret indictments or arrests of at least six arms dealers accused of selling nuclear-capable missiles to Iran and China.
“The proceedings against persons implicated (in the illicit sale) have been forwarded to the Kiev Court of Appeals and are being heard behind closed doors,” Friday’s statement said.
In Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli welcomed the Ukrainian investigation, saying U.S. and Ukrainian authorities had discussed the case, but he did not know whether there were deliveries to China and Iran.
“I think it is fair to say that both the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government share a common concern and a dedication to acting to prevent or to find out and prevent cases of proliferation,” Ereli said.
Missiles purportedly in Iran, China
Last month, the AP reported that missiles purportedly ended up in Iran and China although export documents known as end-user certificates recorded the final recipient of some 20 Kh55 missiles as “Russia’s Defense Ministry,” according to a letter written by a lawmaker to current President Vladimir Yushchenko.
The letter by lawmaker Hrihoriy Omelchenko did not say what happened to the other missiles. The Kh55, known in the West as the AS-15, is designed to carry a nuclear warhead with a 200-kiloton yield.
The missiles allegedly sold to Iran were unarmed. The United States and other Western nations have accused Iran of trying to develop a nuclear weapons program, an allegation Tehran denies.
Iran does not operate long-range bombers but it is believed Tehran could adapt its Soviet-built Su-24 strike aircraft to launch the missile. The missile’s range would put Israel and a number of U.S. allies within reach.
China is a declared nuclear weapons state.
Omelchenko’s letter to Yushchenko and another to the prosecutor-general, Svyatoslav Piskun, refer to a Ukrainian Security Service report that details the allegations.
Alleged weapons dealers arrested
At least three people were arrested and another three were indicted last year in connection with the illicit arms trade, an intelligence official told the AP on condition of anonymity.
According to Omelchenko, in 2000 Russian national Oleg Orlov and a Ukrainian partner identified as E.V. Shilenko “exported 20 Kh55 cruise missiles through a fake contract and end-user certificate” with Russia’s state-run arms dealer and with a firm called Progress, which is a daughter company of Ukrspetseksport — Ukraine’s weapons exporting agency.
Yushchenko has promised to investigate illicit weapons-dealing, including a U.S. allegation that Kuchma approved the sale of a sophisticated Kolchuga radar system to Iraq despite U.N. sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s regime. Kuchma denied the allegations.
NBC's Robert Windrem contributed to this report.