If the Kremlin stays true to its word, Russia on Saturday will begin loading nuclear fuel into Iran's Bushehr reactor. Once it does, it will usher in a new stage in the deepening crisis over Iran's nuclear program.
The 1,000-megawatt plutonium reactor, located near the southern Iranian port city of the same name, has been the public face of the Iranian regime's nuclear program since Tehran and Moscow concluded the agreement to build it, despite American objections, in early 1995. Construction was completed in 2004, but Bushehr has laid dormant for years, ostensibly because of disputes over financing between Russia and Iran, but really because of Moscow's recognition of Washington's worries about Iran's nuclear program.
Until now. On Aug. 13, Rosatom, Russia's state nuclear agency, announced that it will begin packing fuel rods into the reactor, after which "the plant can be certified as a nuclear power installation."
The news has set off alarm bells in Washington, and for good reason. Once it is up and running over the next six months, fuel from the plant could be diverted to expand Iran's existing stockpile of weapons-usable fissile material. Bushehr, once online, could also serve as a critical training ground for Iranian scientists and technicians, significantly expanding the knowledge base (and consequently the pace) of Iran's nuclear program.
But while Bushehr may be Iran's most prominent nuclear facility, it isn't the most important one. While Iran had pursued both uranium and plutonium tracks in its nuclear program since the mid-1980s, the lion's share of resources and attention in recent years have been devoted to the former. The decision is logical; uranium enrichment provides Iran with a quicker, simpler way to generate the fissile material necessary for an atomic bomb, if the Iranian regime makes the strategic decision to do so.
Additionally, Bushehr is far too high-profile a facility for effective nuclear weapons work. With an estimated 900-person workforce, one-third or more of which is foreign (primarily from the former Soviet Union), the plutonium plant is well and truly an international affair. For these reasons, and others, experts say Bushehr is unlikely to figure prominently on the target list for any conceivable military action on the part of Israel.
Or of the United States, for that matter. Up until Bushehr was finished in 2004, the Bush administration opposed Russia's construction of the plutonium plant, seeing it as a potential source for Iranian proliferation. Once it was built, Washington lobbied heavily--and, for the most part, successfully--for Moscow to defer delivery of fuel to the facility, hoping to keep it under wraps.
The Obama administration, by contrast, appears to have given its blessing to Bushehr. The State Department has already emphasized that, in its view, Bushehr "does not represent a proliferation risk," and has spoken approvingly of Russia's provision of nuclear fuel to Iran, holding it out as a viable alternative to Iran's indigenous enrichment efforts.
All of which tracks closely with Russia's interests. Moscow, after all, has been one of Iran's principal nuclear enablers since at least the early 1990s. And while the Kremlin of late has grudgingly gone along with U.N. sanctions against Iran, it shows little sign that it is willing to truly disengage from the Islamic Republic. To the contrary, Moscow has made clear that it hopes to build additional nuclear facilities for Iran once Bushehr comes online. But first, Russian technicians will need to get the Bushehr plant up and running--something that would constitute an "irreversible step" in Iran's nuclear development, in the words of Rosatom spokesman Sergei Novikov.
That's certainly what Iran's leaders hope. Over the past half-decade they have lobbied feverishly for their country to be accepted internationally as a nuclear power. The activation of Bushehr makes their claims a reality--and the West's mission to roll back Iran's nuclear advances that much more difficult.
The Islamic Republic clearly believes that, with enough time and progress on its part, the West will acquiesce to its nuclear will to power. With Bushehr online, Iran has more reason than ever for believing that it ultimately will. For that, we have our Russian "partners" to thank.