July 29, 2002
Iran's Emerging Nuclear Plant Poses Test For U.S.
By Dana Priest, Washington Post Staff Writer
For the past seven years, U.S. and Israeli spy satellites have swept regularly over Iran's Persian Gulf coast, snapping pictures of Russian and Iranian construction crews working to complete a nuclear power plant at Bushehr.
This year, the satellites beamed back images of a round reactor dome, cooling pipes, pumping equipment and what some intelligence analysts believe to be antiaircraft missile battery sites.
Bushehr has become the subject of debate in Washington and Tel Aviv over whether the plant should be allowed to come on line as scheduled in the next two or three years. Part of the discussions involve pressuring Russia to voluntarily cease construction. But as the plant moves closer to completion, it also has emerged as a potential test case of the Bush administration's new doctrine of preempting threats to U.S. national security.
In the process, it has highlighted the complexities involved in executing a policy of preemption: What impact would a preemptive strike have on U.S. relations with Moscow? What effect would eliminating a civilian nuclear power plant have on Iran's covert nuclear weapons development program, which U.S. intelligence says is ongoing at dozens of other less-prominent sites throughout the country?
And perhaps most significant, what would be the consequences of what Iran almost certainly would believe to be an act of war?
Bush has labeled Iran a part of the "axis of evil," and some U.S. defense officials argue that Bushehr should be destroyed before it receives its first load of nuclear fuel from Russia. "There is some support for preemption within the administration," said Anthony H. Cordesman, a leading Middle East expert and one of several proliferation specialists who described the debate within the administration.
Others in the administration argue that if Iran agrees to international safeguards, the plant does not pose a security risk. Besides, they say, while destroying Bushehr will not eliminate Iran's nuclear weapons program, it could antagonize Iranians at a time when the administration is trying to reach out to them.
Iran is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have visited the Bushehr construction site.
Whatever path the administration chooses could be overshadowed by a key U.S. ally in the region: Israel. Although a preemptive strike appears to be supported by only a minority in the administration and has not been discussed at the top levels of government, Israel has suggested it will not allow the plant to open.
"Does Israel have a military option?" said a government official in Washington who is familiar with the Israeli position. "The answer is yes."
On June 7, 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s destroyed the French-built Osirak light-water nuclear reactor near Baghdad. The attack was criticized by the United States at the time but is now regarded by many U.S. policymakers as a milestone in efforts to prevent Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from obtaining nuclear weapons.
In recent weeks, Israel has publicly warned Iran that it considers the Bushehr plant -- which Germany began building for Iran in 1974 and Iraq bombed three times in the mid-1980s during the Iran-Iraq war -- a threat to its national security. There is some evidence, though not conclusive, that Iran is positioning antiaircraft missile batteries around the plant and a nuclear research facility near Tehran, according to analysts who have looked at high-resolution satellite images of those sites.
Last month, the Hebrew daily Haaretz reported that Israel's National Security Council was conducting an urgent review of its policy toward Iran and quoted one official as saying "that everything must be done, including, if necessary, using force to prevent Tehran from achieving nuclear weapons capabilities."
The Bushehr plant, on Iran's southwestern coast, is set to be completed in 16 months and operational 18 months later. Iran, which is paying Russia $800 million for its assistance, says the 1,000-megawatt light-water reactor is for peaceful energy production only.
Neither the technology nor the spent fuel from the Bushehr plant could, by itself, be used to make a nuclear bomb. But the same technology used in the plant is necessary to manufacture enriched fuel for nuclear weapons. Also, weapons-grade plutonium could be extracted from the spent fuel for a nuclear bomb.
The CIA estimates Iran is seven years from having a nuclear bomb. Israeli intelligence estimates five years. Within the next few years, experts agree, Iran will have acquired enough know-how and technology to produce a long-range nuclear missile capability without further foreign assistance.
The Clinton administration devoted considerable energy to its efforts to forestall construction of the plant and curtail Iran's nuclear weapons program. But the issue has recently emerged as a top priority in U.S.-Russian relations, as the Bush administration has increased pressure on Moscow to voluntarily cease construction.
But the Russians have given no sign they will comply. Indeed, the Russian government announced last week that it plans to dramatically increase its cooperation with Iran in the energy field, including a proposal to build five more nuclear reactors. The plan envisages a total of four Russian-built reactors at Bushehr, including the reactor being built, and two at Akhvaz, where construction has yet to begin.
High-level talks with Russia on the subject will take place in the next few weeks, an administration official said. For now, the administration's strategy is to ratchet up public criticism of Russia and to warn Moscow that failure to cooperate will have "a negative impact on U.S.-Russian relations."
"We continue to have concerns that technology and know-how for nuclear weapons are flowing to Iran," the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Alexander Vershbow, said in remarks outside Moscow on Monday. "Russia has to avoid letting its desire for commercial gain end up hastening the day that these countries can pose a threat that could not only destabilize their own region, but undermine the security of the entire world."
Bush has raised the issue of Russia's nuclear cooperation with Iran the last several times he has met with President Vladimir Putin, most recently in Moscow in May.
Russian officials have said repeatedly that the reactor is meant only for energy production and that they are not abetting Iran's nuclear weapons research.
"I'd like to point out that cooperation between Iran and Russia is not at all a character which would undermine the process on nonproliferation," Putin said during Bush's visit to Moscow. Putin said Western companies, not Russian entities, have furnished Iran with missile and nuclear technology. "We do have such information," he said, "and we stand ready to share it with our American partners."
In recent meetings, Russian officials, including Atomic Energy Minister Alexander Rumyantsev, have promised U.S. officials that they will not allow the Iranians access to the spent fuel. The Russian legislature changed the country's laws last year to allow for the return and storage of the spent radioactive material on Russian soil.
More important, according to proliferation experts and U.S. officials, are Iran's ongoing ties with Russian scientists. Russia's help on Bushehr creates a "convenient cover for interaction" between Iranian and Russian scientists involved in nuclear weapons development, said Gary Samore, a senior nonproliferation official in the Clinton administration. It also provides a cover to transfer sensitive, hard-to-track, weapon-related components.
The construction project and follow-up maintenance requirements "would legitimize all the trade between Russia and Iran," said David Albright, president of the Institute of Science and International Security and a proliferation expert. "It makes it difficult to control other things going on."
The CIA says it has considerable evidence that Russian scientists have been actively helping Iran acquire the technology, know-how and material to build a bomb. "Russia continues to supply significant assistance on nearly all aspects of Tehran's nuclear program," CIA Director George J. Tenet told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March. "It is also providing Iran assistance on long-range ballistic missile programs."
To many in and out of the administration who warn about the implications of Russia's expanding commercial and scientific relationship with Iran, the construction site at Bushehr remains the most ominous development. With construction slated to be completed by late 2003 or early 2004, they say the window for action will soon begin to close.
"Within the next year, either the U.S. or Israel is going to either attack Iran's [nuclear sites] or acquiesce to Iran being a nuclear state," said John E. Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a nonpartisan military and intelligence research center.
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