Russia can teach the rest of us a little something
Today, Russia loaded fuel assemblies into the Bushehr nuclear power reactor in Iran. This project endured decades of delays, as the Russians characteristically throttled up or down their cooperation with the project depending on how much it suited its interests.
Recently, however, the Bushehr reactor has been the source of some speculation — mostly by the likes of John Bolton — that time is running out for an effective military option. The thinking is that once Iran’s reactor is loaded with radioactive fuel, bombing it will spread radiation far and wide, affecting neighboring states in the Gulf and essentially representing a “dirty bomb” attack on Iran.
I want to make two points about this that I believe have yet to be made. First, the reluctance to carry out what is essentially a radiological attack on Bushehr should also extend to bombing other sites like the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz and the conversion facility at Esfahan. Blowing up a functioning reactor would be bad — Chernobyl bad — but it’s hardly much worse than bombing Iran’s two tons worth of enriched uranium and dispersing that material into the air.
Low-enriched uranium and uranium hexafluoride are extremely harmful to humans and the environment, and any attack that disperses these materials across Iran would be viewed by many in the international community as equivalent to a radiological attack.
Secondly, the Obama administration is entirely to blame for a nuclear mountain being made out of the Bushehr molehill. The George W. Bush administration actually supported Russia’s role in building the Bushehr reactor, calling it a model of proliferation-safe nuclear cooperation.
It’s the Obama administration that has put Bushehr on the targeting list, with statements like this from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:
If [Iran] reassures the world, or if its behavior is changed because of international sanctions, then they can pursue peaceful, civil nuclear power. In the absence of those reassurances, we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time.
Shockingly enough, I think the Bush administration would have handled this situation much, much better. I suspect the Bush team would have pointed to the inherent contradiction in Iran’s nuclear activities — producing enriched uranium for reactors that don’t exist on the one hand, and productive, fruitful cooperation with Russia to obtain power without indigenous enrichment on the other. This would send a strong message to Iran — “we’re not out to deny you your right to power, and in fact are ready to help you obtain it cheaply and efficiently, with reasonable safeguards.”
As it is, however, Secretary Clinton tells Iran what they can and cannot pursue. This type of rhetoric drives Iran crazy, and it makes them want to dig in further.
Now, because of the administration’s fundamental misunderstanding of the proliferation risks of Iran’s nuclear program, neocon hawks have capitalized and placed a Russian-built, supremely-safeguarded facility on the list of sites to be bombed.
One last point: fortunately, I believe the Russians’ finally coming through on Bushehr will mean they can continue to delay delivery of the S-300 system that Iran is so itching to obtain. Contacts of mine have assured me that Moscow is not willing to deliver the missile system so long as it would trigger an Israeli airstrike. They’ll continue to delay while diplomatic channels are being explored, and I suspect that an operating light-water reactor will go a long way to quell the Iranians’ pestering about the missile system. (At least, I hope it will).