Bush and Bushehr

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Wall Street Journal – REVIEW & OUTLOOK: After a year’s delay, Russia announced this week — with President Bush’s odd endorsement — that it will begin supplying 80 tons of uranium for the nuclear reactor it has built for Iran in the port city of Bushehr. We’ve been here before. The Wall Street Journal

REVIEW & OUTLOOK

December 20, 2007; Page A16

After a year’s delay, Russia announced this week — with President Bush’s odd endorsement — that it will begin supplying 80 tons of uranium for the nuclear reactor it has built for Iran in the port city of Bushehr. We’ve been here before.

Back in 1977, another European power with nuclear expertise, commercial interests in the Middle East and pliable principles — France — agreed to sell Iraq a nuclear reactor on grounds that it would serve civilian purposes. A nuclear monitoring agreement overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was supposed to ensure that the uranium that was meant to fuel the plant would not be diverted to make a bomb.

The Israelis had their doubts, however, and on June 7, 1981 a squadron of low-flying F-16s destroyed the Osirak reactor in an operation that was condemned by the Reagan Administration, among many others. Only later did the U.S. acknowledge that the Israeli operation had kept Saddam Hussein from acquiring a nuclear weapon prior to his invasion of Kuwait.

Now we’re supposed to believe that the Bushehr reactor, like Osirak, will have a purely civilian purpose. In his statement Monday, Mr. Bush noted that “if the Russians are willing to [supply the uranium”>, which I support, then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich.” Further reassurance supposedly lies in the fact that, unlike the Osirak reactor which used highly enriched (weapons-usable) uranium, the Bushehr reactor is of the light-water type that uses low-enriched uranium.

Yet there is a good reason why the Bush Administration tried to stop the Russians from delivering fuel, and the Clinton Administration lobbied hard against Russia’s initial decision to build Bushehr in the 1990s. Though light-water reactors are deemed to be “proliferation resistant,” they are far from being proliferation proof. John Carlson, until recently the chairman of the IAEA’s Standing Advisory Group on Safeguards Implementation, has written that “during the normal operation of large light water reactors of the sort Iran is building at Bushehr, the reactor will produce 330 kilograms of near-weapons grade plutonium — enough to make over 50 crude nuclear bombs.”

Mr. Carlson points to at least two ways in which Iran could illicitly divert fuel from the reactor, adding that the process of separating plutonium from spent fuel “employs technology little more advanced than those required for the production of dairy products and the pouring of concrete.” It doesn’t help that the Bushehr plant will not be monitored with real-time IAEA surveillance cameras, much less a permanent human presence.

As for Iran’s intentions, one of its top nuclear officials instantly rejected any suggestion that Iran would suspend its domestic enrichment efforts, though they violate three binding U.N. Security Council resolutions. And while this month’s U.S. National Intelligence Estimate claims Iran abandoned its nuclear weapons program, nobody doubts that the Iranians spent 18 years lying to the IAEA and still haven’t really come clean, or that mastering the technology of enrichment is the central and most challenging component of any nuclear-weapons program.

By the way, the timing of Israel’s bombing of Osirak was not accidental. At the time, the reactor was about to be supplied with uranium, and Israel feared that any delay in attacking would mean a devastating radioactive fallout. Today, few Israelis doubt that Iran’s nuclear programs pose an existential threat, a fear that has hardly been assuaged by the blithe conclusions of the NIE.

On the contrary, among the risks of the NIE is that it will convince Israeli policy makers that the rest of the world, including the U.S., is not prepared to push aggressively and rapidly for the sanctions — including an embargo on Iran’s gas imports — that might persuade Tehran to stop its nuclear program. What Israel will do next is anyone’s guess, but its September strike against an apparent Syrian nuclear site suggests the military option is very much on their table. The fueling of Bushehr, and the Bush Administration’s acquiescence, has only made the world more dangerous.

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