Bushehr reactor to go active this week

Former NSC head: Iran not interested in direct confrontation with Israel, Teheran backing Hamas.

The long-delayed preliminary operations phase for Iran's first nuclear power plant will begin on Wednesday, according to the country's atomic agency. Still, a nuclear official in Russia, which is helping build the plant, said on Sunday no major milestone was expected. "The pilot stage operation of the power plant will start on Wednesday," Iranian atomic agency spokesman Mohsen Delaviz told the state news agency. He added that the preliminary phase would begin during a visit by Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's state nuclear agency, Rosatom. Speaking at Sunday's cabinet meeting, Defense Minister Ehud Barak referred to two recent reports which found that samples taken from a Syrian site suspected of being a secretly built reactor revealed new traces of processed uranium and that Iran already had enough enriched uranium to build a bomb. "The IAEA report about the Iranian nuclear activity and the results of the tests it carried out on the nuclear reactor that was bombed [in September 2007] in Deir al-Zur illustrate again the need for effective international pressure to stop Iran's nuclear program and the importance of Israel's stance that no option should be removed from the table," he said. According to Ilan Mizrahi, the former head of the National Security Council, Iran is not interested in a direct confrontation with Israel. Speaking at the Netanya Academic College's Center for Strategic Dialogue on Sunday, Mizrahi said Teheran wanted to limit its actions against Israel to those carried out by its proxies, Hamas and Hizbullah. Iran, he said, was pressing Hamas to take control of the West Bank in order to open a new front against Israel. It was also keen on seeing Hizbullah take over Lebanon, he said. The long-awaited 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor, which was built in the southern Iranian port of Bushehr with the help of Russia under a $1 billion contract, was previously scheduled to become operational in the fall of 2008. Some 700 Iranian engineers were trained in Russia to operate the power plant. Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov, however, said no major milestone in the preparations for Bushehr's start-up was expected during Kiriyenko's visit. Novikov said Rosatom expects it to be a "just a working visit" and that as before, the reactor's physical start-up is set to occur by the end of the year. "Everything is on schedule," he said. "It is a regular meeting at the site, with Russians and the Iranian organizations which are working on the project," Novikov said of Wednesday's event. He said he could not be more specific about when the reactor could be switched on, citing uncertainty about the process of integrating what had been built recently and the existing facilities at the site. Novikov said it was possible the "pilot stage operation," described by Delaviz could refer to the point when the plant begins to generate electricity for its own limited use during the "pre-commissioning" period, which he said was already under way. This generation normally occurs a few months before a reactor's start-up, he said. The plant dates backs to 1974, when Iran signed an agreement to build the reactor with the German company Siemens, which withdrew from the project after 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the pro-Western Shah Muhammad Reza Pahlavi. In 1992, Iran signed an agreement with Russia to complete the project and work began on it in 1995. The reactor was supposed to be completed by 1999 but has been plagued by delays. The US has long opposed the deal, citing concerns that it could help Teheran develop nuclear weapons, but it softened its position after Iran agreed to return the spent nuclear fuel from the reactor to Russia - a measure aimed to ensure it doesn't extract plutonium to make atomic bombs. Russia says there is no evidence that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons and has joined China in weakening Western-backed sanctions in the UN Security Council, arguing that punishing Teheran too harshly for its nuclear activities would be counterproductive. The Bushehr plant will use enriched uranium imported from Russia, rather than domestically produced fuel. Fuel deliveries began in 2007.