Eyes on the skies over Iran's reactor
By Marsha B Cohen
MIAMI - Iran's light water nuclear power plant at Bushehr is preparing to go
"live" - again.
Iranian and Russian nuclear scientists and officials have announced Bushehr's
reactor will soon be receiving its first shipment of nuclear fuel 36 years
after construction first began on the project.
This claim may be quietly fueling speculation that a military strike on Iran by
Israel - or the United States - may be imminent.
The Persian-language news site Mardom Salari reported on August 3 that members
of the Iranian armed forces had been transferred to Bushehr to evaluate the
security of the air space
above the site. Three drones were said to have been shot down over Bushehr the
previous day as part of an exercise to test Iranian readiness for an aerial
attack, intercepted by the defense systems of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Mohammad Hoseyn Shanbodi, a political security deputy, told Khalij-e Fars
television news that local officials had no advance warning of an impending
readiness test. Because they hadn't been briefed about the drones entering
Bushehr's air space, no details were available about what happened to the
drones after they were shot down.
The test came as a surprise even to Amir Salahian, said to be in charge of
Bushehr's defense system. After the incident, Salahian was quoted as saying, "I
believe it would have been better if some of the officials in the province
would have known about the drill to avoid tension."
The prospect of Bushehr becoming operational coincides with the proliferation
of public statements that claim an attack on Iran by Israel or the US is
impending and inevitable. Bushehr is strategically located in southwestern Iran
on the Gulf coast, directly across from Kuwait.
An aerial assault on Bushehr would have to take place before any nuclear fuel
arrives at the site. Beyond that point, an attack on the reactor would release
deadly radioactive fallout into the entire Persian Gulf region and beyond.
Besides the catastrophic human and environmental toll of such an attack, the
sea lanes through which much of the world's oil supplies pass would be
The Iranians know this. In 1980, Iran bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear power plant
before it contained any radioactive material. Osirak was quickly repaired by
the French contractors who built it. Eight months later, Osirak was partially
destroyed by Israeli jets, aided by Iranian intelligence.
Nothing about Bushehr violates any international agreements to which Iran is a
party. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created to promote the
use of "atoms for peace". The nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which
Iran signed in 1968 and ratified two years later, obligates the five
nuclear-weapon states (the US, Britain, France, Russia and China) to assist
non-nuclear weapon states that signed the NPT in acquiring and utilizing
nuclear technology for energy production and other peaceful purposes.
Under the NPT, Iran has the right to produce its own nuclear fuel for civilian
projects such as Bushehr. However, suspicions have been raised for nearly two
decades that Iran might try to convert low enriched uranium for electricity
generation into highly enriched uranium.
The IAEA's approval of Iran's nuclear energy program is contingent on Iran
buying its fuel from approved suppliers abroad, and exporting its nuclear waste
back to its source so that the radioactive material it contains can't be
diverted for use in weapons of mass destruction or fall into the wrong hands.
Russia qualifies as an approved supplier.
Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency
(Rosatom), also told the Russian news wire service Interfax on July 27 that
Bushehr would not be affected by United Nations Security Council sanctions
He said, "No one is against the development of Iran's civilian nuclear program;
the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is being carried out under
the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency."
Russia has guaranteed that it will supply all the nuclear fuel needed by
Bushehr, and that its nuclear waste will be reprocessed in Russia.
Israeli military and politicians usually equate Iranian access to nuclear fuel
for electrical generation with Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A light
water reactor, Bushehr won't be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium
(unlike Israel's heavy water reactor at Dimona).
However, Bushehr's becoming operational would affirm Iran's right to develop
and utilize nuclear technology, and give Iran the status and prestige of a
nuclear power. Israelis claim this would pose an "existential threat" to the
Once Bushehr's nuclear fuel arrives from Russia, whatever military options
against Iran that may be "on the table" that include Bushehr will have to come
off. Israel and the US have only a few weeks to launch an attack on Iran before
Bushehr has the means to begin generating electricity.
Israeli sources have often hinted that a strike against Iran might be conducted
with precision-guided drones, in order to minimize casualties among Israeli
soldiers. It's a possibility for which Iranians feel they need to prepare,
which may explain the report of drones over Bushehr as the nuclear facility
prepares to come online.
Both the IRNA and Interfax have quoted Rosatom's Kiriyenko as saying,
"Everything is going according to plan." But nothing about Bushehr has ever
gone according to plan since Siemens began its construction in1974.
After Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denounced the
project as "un-Islamic". Siemens' work stopped during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq
war, when Bushehr was targeted by Iraqi aerial attacks. Siemens declined to
resume work on Bushehr after the war, partly in response to US pressure.
When Iran signed an agreement with Russia to resume Bushehr's construction in
1995, the power plant had to be totally redesigned to Russian specifications.
The contract called for completing the reactor by 1999, but technical,
political and financial issues arose. The inauguration of the facility has been
pushed back at least half a dozen times, most recently from the spring of 2010
to less than a month from now.
Kiriyenko told journalists, "Questions regarding the exact dates should be
referred to the Iranian side. The oversight services ... are negotiating the
final dates with the Iranian customer. The preparations are continuing
according to plan, plus or minus a few days, which will not make any serious
This may be a hint that Bushehr's going live is about to be postponed yet
again, leaving the window of opportunity for a possible attack on Iran open a
little longer. Iran's political leaders and defense officials are keeping their
eyes on the skies. The next drones shot down may not be a test.