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Commentary: Some important concerns about Russia-Iran nuclear power cooperation

By Shoshana Bryen

Shoshana Bryen

WASHINGTON, D.C. –It isn’t exactly Iran’s Bushehr reactor that is making people really nervous this week, and it isn’t exactly the Russians. It is the understanding that no matter what the United States and the West say about Iran with nuclear technology, Iran is moving toward the acquisition of nuclear weapons technology and capability – and moving on the path toward the creation of an actual nuclear weapon(s).

That is coupled with the possibility that Russia will next deliver the S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran, providing a serious new level of protection for the regime and its illegal uranium enrichment program.
 
The Russians, who took over construction of the reactor in 1995, twenty years after Germany started the project, delivered the fuel in 2007 and 2008, but held off installing it. They say they are now preparing to install the fuel rods and plan to have the reactor up and running within weeks, bringing it up to speed over the next six months. According to public reports, it will be tied to the Iranian electricity grid, monitored by the IAEA, and appears to have no link to Iran’s uranium enrichment program. In addition, the Russians claim to have struck a deal with Iran for the return of spent fuel to preclude production of weapons-grade plutonium.
 
On its face, the Russian position seems reasonable – since Iran repeatedly said it wouldn’t cooperate with the IAEA on enrichment activities because Tehran was being prevented from having even civilian energy reactors, the Russians took away that excuse. They also contrived to retain control of the spent fuel. The Russians appear smug about the arrangement and their role as Iran’s energy partner. And as long as the Russians have control, there appears to be no problem.
 
At least that’s what the State Department implied. Unwilling, perhaps, to “re-reset” relations, a State Department spokesman said the United States does not regard Bushehr as a proliferation risk. “Russia’s support for Bushehr underscores that Iran does not need an indigenous enrichment capability if its intentions are purely peaceful,” and the Russian fuel deal mirrors the failed Western offer for a broader fuel swap.
 
But what if its intentions are not “purely peaceful”? The United States had previously expressed three concerns about Bushehr: 

Weapons grade plutonium could be processed from the reactor’s uranium allowing the Iranians to construct nuclear weapons. 

The Russians and Iranians could use Bushehr as a cover for the transfer of sensitive technology.

The knowledge gained by Iranian scientists working at Bushehr could further Iran’s nuclear weapons program.

Even assuming the Russians have the first covered, what about the others? 
 
As recently as May, two German men were arrested for trying to buy dual-use parts prohibited under EU sanctions for use at Bushehr. And Iranians working at Bushehr would certainly gain important understandings about nuclear technology that can be transferred to other parts of Iran’s program – secret parts. The State Department spokesman did note, “the world’s fundamental concerns with Iran’s overall nuclear intentions,” and the fact that “Iran remains in serious violation of its obligations to the IAEA, particularly as regards separate enrichment.”
 
The UK Daily Telegraph reports that Iran has announced plans for ten new enrichment plants “within protected mountain strongholds… The move is a response to sanctions imposed on Iran in an attempt to stop it from producing enriched uranium, which can be used as fuel for nuclear power plants but for weapons if produced in higher levels. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also issued an edict ordering the government to offer only ‘minimum levels of co-operation’ with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN nuclear watchdog.”
 
It is that – “minimum levels of cooperation,” new enrichment facilities in “mountain strongholds” and the clear determination of Iran to move ahead on the nuclear front coupled with threats well understood by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Israel – which makes us very nervous about the possibility that Russia will, in fact, load up Bushehr.

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Bryen is senior director of security policy of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.  Her column is sponsored by Waxie Sanitary Supply in memory of Morris Wax, longtime JINSA supporter and national board member.

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