These are fair reasons not to be worried about Bushehr right now. But they aren’t good reasons to be unconcerned forever. Pu239 is an inevitable byproduct of the operation of a nuclear reactor. Once operational, Bushehr will produce bomb fuel over time. The half-life of plutonium is 24,000 years. Having produced the stuff, Tehran’s incentive to master reprocessing will be high. And when it does, the plutonium will be ready and waiting. That incentive will only grow once/if Iran has lost or suffered a severe setback in its HEU production capability. Suddenly Bushehr would be Tehran’s only route to the bomb.
And it’s an objectively better route than HEU. Breeder reactors churn out far more plutonium, much more quickly, than centrifuge cascades can produce HEU. Plutonium also makes a better bomb: smaller, lighter, more powerful and more deliverable on a larger variety of vehicles.
The possible repercussions of an attack on Iran have been gamed out thoroughly. Opinions differ on how serious they might be. It seems reasonable to assume that adding one target to a lengthy list would not make them materially worse. Any nation prepared to incur all that risk from striking Iran’s HEU sites may as well take out Bushehr as well. If nothing else, at least the attacker could know for sure that the plant would be gone. As many opponents and skeptics of a strike have noted, no such certainty would apply to attacks on the buried and largely hidden Natanz and Qom sites. Plus, the Israelis have twice destroyed nuclear reactors in the region but never enrichment cascades. It’s hard to see what sense it would make to mount the difficult, unprecedented, uncertain operation while leaving standing the one site they know they can eliminate.
So this news—if it really is news—would appear to be one more move on the chessboard that suggests the endgame may be coming soon. A grandmaster might assume that anything he could game out, the Russians and Iranians could too. Are the Russians fueling Bushehr knowing—or even hoping—that doing so might precipitate an attack? Certainly Moscow has reasons not to welcome a nuclear armed Iran. Goading someone else into doing the dirty work has significant advantages. As does the inevitable rise in hydrocarbon prices following a Middle East conflagration.
Then again, it could be just another feint. Or the above analysis could be wrong. Or it could be right, but the Israelis decide not to act for other reasons. In chess, the players’ intentions may be unknown but at least all the moves are visible. Not so in politics.
Update (7:05 p.m.): The Wall Street Journal is reporting that the Obama administration, as part of the price for a Russian vote in favor of June’s UNSC sanctions resolution against Iran, agreed not to oppose Russian help to get Bushehr started. Their rationale is that Bushehr doesn’t pose a proliferation risk because the Russians will be reclaiming all of the plant’s spent fuel rods. This of course entails trusting three parties—the governments of Iran and Russia, plus the International Atomic Energy Agency—which have not exactly proved trustworthy on this issue in the past. It’s an odd position for an administration so committed to “nuclear zero” to take.
However, it should put to rest any speculation that the United States might be contemplating an attack of our own—at least on Bushehr. It also must complicate Israeli calculations. Israel will no doubt do what it believes it has to do. Bush administration officials reportedly communicated to Jerusalem in advance their opposition to the attack on Syria’s reactor in 2007—an attack that went forward anyway. But this time such an attack would have to take place not merely in spite of an ally’s private objections to the operation but of its public approval of the targeted project.
One of the many difficult calculations Jerusalem must make is whether a potential U.S. backlash over a strike the Obama administration doesn’t want is worse than the consequences of not striking. No Israeli government could take lightly the prospect of a serious and potentially fatal breach of relations with the United States. That’s not an existential threat. But it would be dire enough that it’s not worth risking unless the consequences of inaction truly are existential. That’s a hard and unenviable call to have to make.
Michael Anton is policy director at Keep America Safe.