Just Like Bushehr, Iran's Uranium Enrichment is No Threat

08/24/2010 07:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

In recent days, a good deal of attention has been focused on Iran's first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, still in its final stages of development. We believe that there are some important lessons to be learned from the Bushehr experiences that could help move U.S. policy on the Iranian nuclear issue in a much more positive and productive direction -- if the Obama Administration is sufficiently interested in successful nuclear diplomacy with Tehran that it is willing to take these lessons on board.

Earlier this month, the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (ROSATOM) announced that fuel rods for the Bushehr reactor would be delivered to a "reactor storage facility" at the site, from which they would be installed in the reactor itself, on August 21. News reports over the weekend confirm that Iranian and Russian engineers began installing the fuel rods on Saturday. Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, says that he hopes the reactor will be sufficiently operational to be connected to Iran's national electricity grid by mid-September, adding that it will probably take 6-7 months for the plant to achieve full operational capacity.

Both Salehi and the head of ROSATOM stress that all of this will take place under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Nevertheless, these developments prompted the irrepressible John Bolton to argue that Israel needed to strike Bushehr before August 21. In Bolton's view, the facility represents a "major, major plus for the Iranian nuclear weapons program," adding that "what this does is give Iran a second route to nuclear weapons in addition to enriched uranium. It's a very huge, huge victory for Iran." However, Bolton also worried that striking Bushehr after fuel rods begin to be inserted into the reactor "would almost certainly release the radiation into the atmosphere" -- hence, his argument that Israel needed to strike before August 21.

We must admit that we are somewhat surprised by Bolton's acknowledgment of environmental considerations as a constraint on potential military strikes against Iranian nuclear targets. But, more than that, we are struck by how marginal Bolton's position on Bushehr -- that an internationally-safeguarded nuclear power plant, the fuel for which will be provided and (after use) removed by Russia, is an unacceptably dangerous source for weapons-grade fissile material which should be destroyed through military action -- has become.

Of course, assertions about the apocalyptically dangerous character of the Bushehr project were a staple of U.S. policy throughout the Clinton Administration and for much of the George W. Bush Administration. But, before he left office, even President George W. Bush had come to recognize the non-threatening character of Bushehr. For its part, the Obama Administration has never had a problem per se with Bushehr as a serious source of proliferation risk.

Earlier this year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to get Russia to delay (once again) delivering the fuel rods, arguing that "we think it would be premature to go forward with any project at this time, because we want to send an unequivocal message to the Iranians". However, earlier this month, the State Department's chief spokesman, P.J. Crowley, said that "Bushehr is designed to provide electricity to Iran. It is not viewed as a proliferation risk because Russia is providing the needed fuel and taking back the spent nuclear fuel, which is the principal source of potential proliferation". And, over the weekend, as the fuel rods were beginning to be installed at Bushehr, one of Crowley's deputies confirmed that "we recognize that the Bushehr reactor is designed to provide civilian nuclear power and do not view it as a proliferation risk".

According to the Washington Post, "Israeli officials also said they were not particularly worried about the fuel being loaded into Bushehr." Even the Netanyahu government's hard-right minister of national infrastructure, Uzi Landau, said that "our problem is with the other facilities that they have, where they enrich uranium".

So, as Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov noted about critics of Bushehr coming on line, "there will always be some, even regarding such an impeccable event from the standpoint of international law as the opening of Bushehr." But, at this point, the overwhelming weight of international opinion does not contest Lavrov's description of the deal as "an important anchor that keeps Iran within the non-proliferation regimen." (And, while we are considering the international legal aspects of the matter, Salehi noted -- correctly in our view -- that a military strike against Bushehr would be a "crime".)

Today, the United States and some of its Western partners -- in particular, Britain and France, which have their own narrow interests in not having the strategic cachet of their small strategic arsenals "cheapened" by the emergence of more states (especially in the "developing" world) that have mastered the nuclear fuel cycle -- focus on Iran's work on uranium enrichment as apocalyptically dangerous. But we believe that there is an important lesson to be drawn from the Bushehr precedent about how the international community should approach the matter of Iranian enrichment.

It should be clear by now that the Islamic Republic is going to continue enriching uranium. From a non-proliferation standpoint, does the international community really want Iran pursuing enrichment under circumstances in which Tehran is progressively alienated from the non-proliferation regime's "managers" because of the way the Iranian program is treated -- with sanctions, talk about military strikes, and perhaps even the initiation of aggressive war against Iran by Israel or the United States? Or, would it be preferable for major players in the international community to work with the Islamic Republic to develop its uranium enrichment capabilities in ways that are fully compatible with the non-proliferation regime?

As we have written previously, see here, American/international "acceptance" of Iranian enrichment is critical if nuclear talks with Iran later this year are to have any chance of lasting success. In our conversations with Iranian officials over a number of years, we have received a consistent message that American/international acceptance of enrichment on Iranian soil would facilitate Iranian cooperation with a wide range of non-proliferation measures -- e.g., ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iranian officials have also indicated their openness to multilateral cooperation on enrichment -- so long as, under whatever cooperative arrangements might be established, uranium enrichment continues to take place inside Iran. Four years ago, Sir John Thomson and Geoff Forden of MIT described one way in which such an outcome might be achieved; they have continued to update and refine their ideas in this regard, see here. Just as the world has -- John Bolton aside -- learned to live with an Iranian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, it should learn to live with internationally-safeguarded enrichment inside the Islamic Republic.

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