PERHAPS THE ONLY THING more disappointing than Moscow's shipment this week of lightly enriched uranium to fuel the power reactor at Bushehr in Iran was President Bush's endorsement of it. "If the Russians are willing to do that [supply the uranium], which I support, then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich," he said. His comment, which was immediately hailed by Iranian officials, did almost as much damage to U.S. and allied efforts to restrain Tehran's suspect nuclear weapons activities as the Russian shipment itself.
Why would anyone applaud sending reactor fuel to Iran--a country that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the United Nations Security Council have condemned as having violated its obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)?
Technically, this will only bring Tehran closer to getting a bomb. If the fuel is diverted and used as fresh feed for Iran's uranium enrichment centrifuges at Natanz it could dramatically reduce the time and effort needed to make a bomb's worth of highly enriched weapons-grade uranium. Russia shipped 82 tons of lightly enriched uranium. At any time while it is loading the fuel, Tehran could seize it and have enough uranium feed for its centrifuges at Natanz to make to make up to 150 crude nuclear weapons. It takes far less effort and time to enrich the Russian shipment to weapons-grade than it would to enrich natural uranium. Instead of taking a year to get its first bomb's worth from natural uranium, Iran could enrich the reactor fuel and get its first bomb's worth in six to eight weeks. That's considerably less than the years it has taken the United States, Europe, Russia, and China to sanction Tehran.
Then there's the problem of the fuel once it's taken out of the reactor. A year after the machine is brought on line, a third of the reactor's fuel is removed (in Bushehr's case, this could occur in 2009). This discharge will contain roughly 20 bombs' worth of near-weapons grade plutonium. All that's required to make a single bomb would be to seize or divert 1/20 of the spent fuel. Iran could conceivably do this without setting off alarms by temporarily blacking out or blocking IAEA surveillance cameras and slipping in dummy fuel rods in place of the ones its diverts. Or it could simply "crash through," letting the world know of the fuel's seizure. Even under these circumstances, there would hardly be much warning. By simply cutting the fuel rods' cladding off and chemically stripping out the plutonium, Iran could possibly get is first bomb's worth of plutonium in as little as two weeks-far less time than the world, the United States, or even Israel would likely need to be able to react.
That President Bush is willing to trust Iran not to attempt either of these scenarios is troubling. Surely Washington has thought about these possibilities. Then there is the matter of what our friends--and other would-be bomb makers--are likely to make of the president's endorsement of the fuel shipment. How credible will our pleas be to impose sanctions against Iran for violating the NPT? Isn't Iran's program, or at least its key project, Bushehr, now deemed to be "peaceful"? But if it has a right to pursue this program, what country doesn't? Was the administration simply hasty in killing its offer of light-water reactors and nuclear fuel for another NPT violator, North Korea? As for arguing that the shipment proves that Iran has no need to "learn how to enrich," Iranian officials note that the Russians held off transferring the fuel for nearly two years. That's why they believe it's imperative that Tehran make its own nuclear fuel. Are they wrong?
The short answer is, of course, they are. In fact, Iran's nuclear power and fuel-making programs are commercial, energy security frauds. As Undersecretary of State John Bolton repeatedly detailed in public testimony and speeches during Bush's first term, Iran has flared more natural gas and energy than Bushehr is ever likely to produce (and will continue to do so for many years). Also, Iran lacks sufficient domestic uranium reserves even to fuel Bushehr. Bottom line: If Iran's nuclear programs were only about producing secure, economical energy, they would make no sense. But they are not; they are bomb options.
Unfortunately, Bolton has left office and no longer holds sway. His grip over these issues, though, began to slip even before his departure. Early in 2005, the State Department persuaded President Bush to stop opposing the completion of Bushehr and to focus instead only on getting Iran to shutter its nuclear fuel-making activities. Then, in a reckless attempt to spook Iran and appease nuclear power enthusiasts, the State and Energy Departments started formalizing nuclear cooperative agreements in 2006 with Jordan, Libya, Egypt, Turkey and, just this month, with Saudi Arabia. The aim of these understandings is to assure the completion of additional Bushehr-sized reactors in these countries by 2020.
How one justifies such endeavors economically (all of these countries, like Iran, are either awash with natural gas or have major gas pipelines running through them), is, at best, unclear. What's not, unfortunately, is that America is now committed to the hope (against all past experience) that it can somehow push Atoms for Peace in the war torn Middle East and have an Iran with a nuclear program but without the bomb. Not to put too fine a point on it, we would all better off if we reversed course. The question now is how.
Henry Sokolski is executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, D.C., and is co-editor with Patrick Clawson of Getting Ready for a Nuclear-ready Iran (Carlisle, PA: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2005).