The silly season may be about to get sillier. A number of bloggers picked up this week on reports that drones “crashed” in southwest Iran near the site of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. (More on that in a moment.)
Russia contracted some years ago to complete the construction of the light-water reactor (LWR) at Bushehr, which was begun by the French during the Shah’s reign, in the 1970s. Bringing the reactor online – fueling it with enriched uranium and taking it critical – has been postponed repeatedly since 2007. The Russians are an integral part of this process, so it has depended to some extent on political calculations in Moscow.
The Russians have stated on multiple occasions this year, however, that they expect to have the Bushehr LWR online in the August-September timeframe. It being now August, the global Bushehr Watch is going into overdrive. And what happens with Bushehr will, in spite of countervailing technical reality (see below), be a bellwether of how things are likely to go with Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the fate of Russia’s association with it, and the alignments of the Middle East.
First, the technical reality. Bushehr is not an efficient source of weapons-grade fissile material. Lighting off the LWR would advance Iran’s program to develop nuclear weapons hardly at all, in the context of any operationally significant timeline. It matters, yes; but not soon. One LWR would take years to produce a meaningful amount of weaponizable material. (The heavy-water reactor being built in the north at Arak, on the other hand, can produce plutonium – like North Korea’s plutonium reactor – somewhat more efficiently. Weaponization is a different design problem in that case, but the foreign associations of Iran’s nuclear program suggest both avenues have been pursued.)
Therefore – and this is important to understand – the change of conditions represented by Bushehr going critical is not centered on what this event means to the timeline for a nuclear weapon. Israel may well not regard it as essential to strike the reactor and prevent it from being brought online. The US certainly may not (and in my estimation, probably doesn’t). Iran’s ability to produce a weapon is based on centrifuge enrichment of the current uranium stock, combined with laboratory testing of detonators and the design and testing of warheads. Striking the LWR at Bushehr affects none of these elements of the program.
So it would be wrong to assume that we’ve gone soft if we (by which I mean the US or Israel) don’t attack the reactor before it’s brought online. (Prior assumptions along these lines are a separate issue.) This is a different problem from the Iraqi reactor at Osirak in 1981. Bushehr represents much less of Iran’s potential stock of weaponizable uranium than the Iraqi reactor represented for Saddam.
The important cut-off, however, is the fueling of the reactor. Any strike decision has to be made before it’s fueled. Once it’s fueled, disabling or destroying it without an unacceptable release of toxins is a problem that, while not technically insuperable, falls in the category of “too hard,” short of regime-change in Tehran.
This brief outline of factors brings us to where Iran and Russia now sit. Iran – my assessment – is concerned that preparing to fuel the LWR at Bushehr will bring the Israeli Air Force (IAF) down on it. Regardless of the larger truths about Iran’s program, Israel has twice struck reactors in the region: at Osirak in ’81 and in Syria in 2007. (In both cases – unlike the Iran timeline – building the reactors was more significant to obtaining weaponizable material.)
And if Iran is preparing to fuel the reactor, Iranian actions in the past week could be related to that. Iran’s fresh claim to have received four batteries of the S-300 air defense system from Belarus – as speculated by Western analysts in 2006 – looks like more than a random propaganda eruption. As this analysis suggests, meanwhile, the story of the crashed drones near Bushehr might have arisen from an Iranian exercise, in which drones were used as targets to test local air defenses. (There is no way to cross-check the references in the IPS analysis, but the conclusion makes sense.)
The hand of Iran in the attacks on southern Israel this week may be related as well. This report reinforces the analysis that Iran was behind them, although reporters and editors are still catching up to that emerging pattern. The headline says “Hamas Ordered Rocket Attacks,” but the text reads as follows:
[Hamas militant leader] Atar carried out the attack with the approval of Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshal, based in Damascus, and with the backing of Iranian intelligence agents, who appear to have initiated the mission.
According to intelligence sources, a number of Gaza militants crossed into Sinai through the Rafah tunnels, where they were met by Egyptian drivers and the rockets.
The italicized portions implicate Iran’s network in the Sinai (see “attacks on southern Israel” link for further reading). Especially if the additional reporting about an attack on the observer force in the Sinai (MFO) is valid, the very unusual nature of this group of attacks argues a particular central motive beyond the scope of Hamas’ interests. Bogging Israel down in local security disturbances (which include the incident on the border with Lebanon) would help to serve Iran’s purpose of deflecting an air strike on Bushehr.
I doubt that this was Iran’s sole motive. That said, Bushehr would be one of Iran’s best reasons for acting funny in August 2010. Tehran’s big scare in June, when the mullahs declared a state of emergency on the northwestern border with Azerbaijan and feared an imminent US-Israeli attack, has no doubt produced lingering effects of its own, coloring the Iranian leadership’s current calculations as well.
Russia, meanwhile, is the participant in this drama with the power to either undermine US policy, or effectively support it. I assess that President Obama would prefer the LWR at Bushehr not be fueled just yet. The symbolism of that event will be tremendous, if it does happen, and will not redound to his credit. Although the Russians could argue that they are not technically in breach of UN sanctions if they supply the reactor fuel (as they are contracted to do), there is no doubt that taking that action would put Moscow publicly and categorically at odds with US and European policy.
If Russia does commit to that watershed break, it’s “on” in the Middle East, in terms of patronage and alignments. But I predict Putin and Medvedev will hold out for a little while longer before deciding which way to come down. Winning more concessions from Obama is one motive; another is squeezing palm-greasers out of Iran.
As frustrating as it will be to watch, the best outcome we can probably hope for is the Bushehr inflection point being lengthened, most likely by a watchful Russia trying to time the break. Bushehr going critical will have game-changing political meaning. But striking Bushehr doesn’t make sense on its own. Politics aside, that will be the real reason for not doing it.