An Iranian nuclear reactor will start operating in a few days. But Israel probably won't be bombing it.
If John Bolton wanted to get the world’s attention, it worked. Earlier this week the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations took to the airwaves to sound the alarm about the news that Russia will soon start loading fuel rods into an Iranian nuclear reactor it’s been building for years outside of the city of Bushehr. “Once that uranium, once those fuel rods are very close to the reactor, certainly once they’re in the reactor, attacking it means a release of radiation, no question about it,” Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network on Monday. “So if Israel is going to do anything against Bushehr it has to move in the next eight days.” He repeated the claim (though with varying timelines) to a number of other media outlets in the course of the week.
Bolton also said that he didn’t see any signs that the Israelis were preparing an attack — though that qualification went largely lost in the resulting brouhaha. His remarks may have taken on additional resonance because they followed closely on the heels of the release of an Atlantic Monthly cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg that cast an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as a virtual fait accompli. So one can’t help but ask: Is the reactor in Bushehr likely to become the target of an Israeli airstrike?
The answer is almost certainly no — and not just because attacking the reactor after this weekend would release radioactivity into the atmosphere. The reactor has been under construction for almost 30 years. In several of his media appearances Bolton asserted that starting the reactor at Bushehr means that Iran is now embarking on the path to enriching plutonium — enough, he said in one interview, to produce 40 to 60 plutonium weapons. If that really is the scale of threat, one wonders why the Israelis haven’t attacked it already.
The reason is that, frankly, they have better things to worry about. “Bushehr is not the big proliferation risk in Iran,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Sure, he says, any reactor — including a light-water reactor of the type the Russians have built in Bushehr — is potentially a source of nuclear materials. But there are good reasons to believe that this isn’t the case with Bushehr.
The first is that the Russians, largely as the result of years of pressure from the United States, have committed themselves to taking back the spent fuel from the reactor and processing it themselves. In 2005 the Bush administration agreed not to oppose further construction of the plant at Bushehr in return for Russian assurances that they wouldn’t give the Iranians control over the fuel. And that deal had a pedigree: When the Kremlin agreed to help the Iranians with the Bushehr plant a decade earlier, the Clinton administration prevailed upon then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin to exclude centrifuges the Iranians had originally wanted to purchase as part of the deal. (Fitzpatrick notes that the Bushehr project also “masked” some less above-board Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program that contributed to U.S. suspicions.)
As some experts point out, it would have been hard for the Clinton White House to deny the Russians the chance to build the light-water reactor for the Iranians, considering that the United States had recently done the same for North Korea — in what proved to be a vain attempt to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing a nuclear weapons program of its own. (Light-water reactors, it should be noted, pose notably less of a proliferation risk than other types.) The Iranians, after all, are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows them the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
The second reason is that finding out if fuel is diverted from Bushehr is actually fairly easy. The reactor is subject to monitoring by inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and they won’t have any problem determining if fuel supplied by the Russians isn’t being used as it’s supposed to. Fitzpatrick points out that the Iranians would probably have to change the operation of the reactor if they wanted to use it to create enough plutonium for bombs. “If [Iran] operates it for power generation normally, the spent fuel conceivably could still be used for weapons,” says Fitzpatrick. “But it would be hardly ideal and Iran would still have to acquire a reprocessing capability which it does not now have.” The point here is that, however you look at it, the Iranians are extremely unlikely to gain weapons-grade material from the plant.
So should everyone else in the world be happy that Bushehr is finally going on line? Not necessarily. Iran already stands accused by the IAEA of being less than forthcoming about other parts of its nuclear program. “Diverting the fuel would be hard under IAEA safeguards,” says Fitzpatrick. “Nobody is really worried about that. The worry is that if there is diversion the world won’t do anything about it. Enforcement depends on a political decision.” When North Korea expelled IAEA inspectors and diverted fuel to its weapons programs before withdrawing from the NPT in 2003, the reaction from the world’s governments was essentially a big yawn.
Some also worry that allowing the Iranians to run a nuclear reactor — even if it’s allowed under international law — sets an ominous precedent for the Middle East, a region still riven by conflict and governed by autocrats. If the Iranians can have a nuclear reactor, then why can’t, say, the Syrians? It’s worth noting, perhaps, that one of the most intense expressions of concern about the start of operations at the Bushehr reactor came not from John Bolton but from Saudi Arabia.
In short, if the Bushehr reactor poses a threat, it’s a primarily political, not military, one. And while it’s sometimes possible to solve political problems by military means, the danger is always that use of force will create more problems than it solves. That point has been made about Iran’s nuclear program many times over the past few days. Let’s hope that someone takes it to heart.
Christian Caryl is the former editor of Democracy Lab, published by Foreign Policy in partnership with Legatum Institute. Twitter: @ccaryl
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