This Shabbat, Iran will start gearing up its first nuclear plant. Russian engineers will load nuclear fuel that has been enriched in Russia into the core of the Bushehr reactor, enabling the Islamic Republic to produce electricity within about two months. This will complete a 40-year endeavor to produce nuclear power, initiated by Shah Reza Pahlavi, who was overthrown in 1979.

John Bolton, a former US ambassador to the UN, has expressed grave concerns about the $1 billion project.

“Iran is on the verge of achieving something that Saddam Hussein was not able to achieve,” Bolton said his week, “and that’s getting a second route to nuclear weapons. It’s a very, very significant step forward for the Iranian nuclear program.”

Others are more reserved, and some have even accused Bolton, who warned that Israel had just a few days to bomb Bushehr before such a move would spread nuclear radiation, of being an “alarmist.”

But plainly, at the very least, completion of the Bushehr project is another sign that the international sanctions enacted to thwart Iran’s nuclear ambitions are not working.

THE OBAMA administration, after initially opposing the Bushehr project, consented in resent months to Russia pushing forward with it. There were several reasons behind this change in policy.

From the US’s perspective, Bushehr constitutes proof that Iran does not need to enrich uranium locally to produce energy. The Islamic Republic can achieve its peaceful energy goals by importing nuclear fuel from Russia. If it stubbornly insists on enriching its own uranium after Bushehr is up and running, the US, the EU and other countries, including Russia, can put more pressure on Iran to stop its indigenous enrichment activity.

The problem is that Iran rejects this argument, noting accurately, if disingenuously, that enriching your own uranium is much cheaper. In fact, this week Iran unveiled a new law mandating the production of higher-enriched uranium. Also, the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Ali Akbar Salehi, said Teheran would begin building its third enrichment plant by early 2011.

The Obama administration also argued that allowing the Bushehr deal would get Russia on board the sanctions campaign against Iran. In truth, however, allowing Russia to move ahead with the nuclear reactor clearly undercuts US efforts to isolate Teheran.

Russia is already one of several countries ignoring or partially ignoring the campaign to level sanctions against Teheran. Some countries, such as Syria, Venezuela and even Turkey, have flouted sanctions for ideological reasons.

Others, such as China, some East Asian countries and, as we recently noted here, Switzerland, continue to do business with Iran out of economic considerations.

In addition to its clear economic incentives, Russia has geopolitical motivations – seeking to increase its influence in the Middle East vis-a-vis the US. At the beginning of this month, Russia’s navy chief, Adm. Vladimir Vysotsky, announced that his country’s naval supply and maintenance site near Syria’s Mediterranean port of Tartus would be modernized to accommodate heavy warships after 2012. This is the same Syria that enjoys close ties with Iran and supports anti-American forces in Iraq.

CRITICS OF the Bushehr deal note that while the project is unquestionably designed to produce electricity, there is also a dangerous potential side effect: Spent reactor fuel can be used to produce bomb-quality plutonium.

The sides have signed an agreement under which Russia, with international oversight, will be responsible for disposing of the reactor’s used fuel. This understanding was central in convincing the US not to oppose the completion of the project.

But it is not entirely clear to what extent the large quantities of fissile material set to be produced can be tracked.



Nor is it clear that Russia can be trusted to dispose of that spent fuel. And what happens if Iran cuts ties with Russia in the middle of the deal and remains in possession of the fissile material? Even if careful supervision of the project is maintained and Bushehr does not represent a direct military threat to Israel, as some senior Israeli officials have suggested, the deal is problematic from another perspective. It is proof that the sanctions effort, as currently constituted and implemented, is inadequate.

The Islamic Republic has managed to obtain a nuclear reactor without being required to abandon its own uranium enrichment activities. Each such Iranian step forward only increases the likelihood of a more robust response to its untenable nuclear drive.

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