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
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.”
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.
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
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
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
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
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
deal and remains in possession of the fissile material? Even if careful
supervision of the project is maintained and Bushehr does not represent a
military threat to Israel, as some senior Israeli officials have
deal is problematic from another perspective. It is proof that the
effort, as currently constituted and implemented, is inadequate.
Islamic Republic has managed to obtain a nuclear reactor without being
to abandon its own uranium enrichment activities. Each such Iranian step
only increases the likelihood of a more robust response to its untenable