Danged if I didn’t write about the reactor at Bushehr just a few days ago. It looked like maybe Iran was practicing her defensive measures for a reactor start-up – local air defense, trying to get Israel preoccupied with attacks from multiple axes – because the start-up could be imminent. I hoped, writing that earlier piece, that Russia still had doubts about the wisdom of defying US policy and UN sanctions to this extent. But apparently the Russians are satisfied that we’re not going to do anything.
That’s no surprise at this point. Indeed, there are few real surprises lurking out there anywhere, at this point. Someone, somewhere, has predicted almost everything that’s going to happen, and a lot of people are aware of most of the predictions. If we were to put things in terms of a familiar analogy, the main question is probably how long it will take, from 2010, to get from the modern version of 1936 to the modern version of 1939.
March 1936 was when Hitler’s Germany, in defiance of the Versailles and Locarno treaties, remilitarized the Rhineland. For military-technological reasons, that action didn’t necessarily have the same meaning in 1936 that it had had to the armistice negotiators of 1918-19. European politicians looking for good excuses in ‘36 leveraged that fact for all it was worth. But it was a watershed political event: it signaled Nazi Germany’s determination and direction, and it signaled the unwillingness of England and France to do anything about it. Most importantly, it signaled Hitler’s assurance that England and France would take no action.
Lighting off the Bushehr reactor stands the test of this analogy pretty well. The Bushehr reactor itself is not, technically, the key to Iran’s nuclear weapons program. It will have a subordinate role at best, partly because of the limitations of light-water reactors for producing weapons-grade material, and partly because Iran has agreed to send the reactor’s spent fuel rods back to Russia anyway. Flouting this agreement with Russia would constitute a significant political break on Iran’s part, one that’s not unthinkable but is unlikely. Russian collusion in diverting uranium from the reactor to weapons production is more likely, in my view, than Iran making an abrupt political break. And neither is on the horizon at this moment.
But Russia enabling Iran’s nuclear program at all is directly opposed to the substance of the UN’s demands to Iran, the sanctions on Iran, and US and EU policy. There is no question that Russia has chosen to take this step in the belief that the US and Europe will do nothing about it. What matters here is what mattered in 1936: the absolute clarity of the political decision point, and the expectations about who will do what.
Continued in Part II…
Cross-posted at Hot Air.