Significance and Implications of the Launch of the Bushehr Nuclear Plant

Dr. Mustafa Abdel Aziz Morsi: Significance and Implications of the Launch of the Bushehr Nuclear Plant

  • 29 August 2010

On August 21, 2010, Iran launched its first nuclear power plant near Bushehr (in the south of the country), with the help of Russian technical assistance. With the loading of fuel at the reactor, Iran officially joined the club of nuclear energy producing countries; thereby completing a project that was started as far back as 1974, when the country was ruled by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi (who was a close ally of the US). At that time, the Shah had signed a contract with German company Siemens for the building of a nuclear plant at the site, but the project floundered following the onset of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, which culminated with the ouster of the Shah in 1979 and has since soured relations between the West and Iran.

Thus, the launch of the Bushehr nuclear power plant this August has raised a new set of controversies and has important implications for Iran’s domestic politics, its foreign relations and for the unfolding international crisis over Iran’s nuclear program. Internally, the activation of Bushehr power plant marks an important advance for the Ahmedinejad government. For one, it assuages some of the popular disquiet against the present government over the issue of its legitimacy following the last legislative elections, in which Ahmedinejad secured a controversial win. After the opening of Busheher nuclear power plant, the present government can claim it was able to make a significant achievement, which it had promised the Iranian masses, in spite of international pressures and sanctions. This event would thus enhance the popularity of the government at the expense of the opposition, especially as the Iranian nuclear program is seen by the people of that country as the foremost issue of national pride.

At the international level, Russia’s presence at the inauguration of the nuclear reactor raises many questions and holds many implications. First, the nuclear plant has been opened at a critical time in Russia-Iran relations as some observers have even dubbed the present phase as the end of “the tenuous and deceitful Russia-Iran Mut’ah marriage”. The view gained currency following recent escalation in acrimonious exchanges between the two sides following Russia’s assent to the recent imposition of sanctions against Iran. In his response to the Russian decision, Ahmedinejad warned Kremlin that might turn into a foe of Tehran. For its part, Russia asked Ahmedinejad to stop his ‘political demagogy’. However, such Iranian remarks were not aimed at closing the door on Russia, but to coax its ally into correcting the course in its relations between the two countries, because of the fact that Iran almost completely depends on Russian technology and weaponry in the wake of boycott and sanctions by the West. Russia on the other hand wants to ensure that it preserves its economic interests with Iran as that has a higher importance in Russian foreign policy equation following the decline in ideological considerations. By opening the Bushehr power plant, Russia has confirmed that it is seeking to strike a balance—as much as possible—between its economic interests with Iran and its relations with the West. It has also given strong assurance that the nuclear fuel used in the reactor would not be diverted into producing nuclear weapons. The second noteworthy point about the inauguration of the nuclear power plant is that it took place at the time of the implementation of UN Resolution 1929, which imposed a fourth round of tough sanctions on Iran, which was supported by Russia and China. Therefore, the opening of the Bushehr plant conveys the implicit message that sanctions do not severely affect Iran’s nuclear and weaponization plans.

The third implication is linked to the US position as regards the opening of the nuclear power plant. Washington had criticized Moscow for going ahead with the Bushehr nuclear plant at a cost of a billion dollars, but it refrained from criticizing Russia when the latter declared that it would load fuel in the reactor as Washington deemed it would not represent a threat to its policies of nuclear proliferation. Two points were put forward in defense of this stance. First, it was claimed by some observers that there had been a Russia–US deal to allow partially enriched nuclear fuel to be supplied to Iran with Russian guarantees and supervision in lieu of intensified pressure on it for ending uranium enrichment within Iranian territories. This tack, it is claimed, would ensure the containment of Iran and end the possibility of a new war. A second line of reasoning points to the contention that Washington is receding from its preeminent position of power and is retracing its steps due to strong assurances it is receiving that Tehran would not use nuclear fuel to produce nuclear weapons.

It seems that the second contention is the more acceptable one, as it has many facts to back it up. Recently, Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov asserted that the Bushehr station would be used for civilian purposes only and guaranteed it a “hundred percent” and such guarantees are not given by Moscow except on the basis of objective facts. He assured that Russian supplies to the station with nuclear fuel means that all non-proliferation rules have been observed. According to Russian–Iranian agreement over the operations in the station, Tehran is committed to returning the used fuel rods to Russia. In addition, the whole operation at the nuclear plant would remain under the supervision of the International Atomic Energy Agency. These facts have assured experts that the official inauguration of the Bushehr reactor would not have any bearing on nuclear weapons proliferation in the region and would not help Tehran develop nuclear weapons and that it would pursue a nuclear program for strictly peaceful purposes.

This does not imply that the opening of the nuclear plant would defuse the crisis over Iran’s nuclear program, as the fears still persist. Despite assurances about the Bushehr reactor, there are serious apprehensions about operations in other nuclear plants. There are also reservations in some quarters over the safety of the Bushehr reactor itself, as there are fears of a possible radioactive leak that could have the potential of causing serious environmental damage to the region. Kuwaiti Foreign Undersecretary Khaled Al-Jarallah recently aired such fears by stating that Kuwait is anxious because of any potential leak that might take place in the future due to natural causes would have very serious consequences. Similar concerns were expressed by former Secretary General of the GCC, Abdulrahman bin Hamad Attiyah when he pointed out that the Bushehr nuclear reactor was closer to Gulf countries than it is to Tehran. Many Western media reports have also raised doubts over the special security measures put in place at the reactor, which is stationed just a few kilometers away from Arab Gulf shores.

Although the commencement of Russian nuclear fuel supply to the Bushehr reactor does raise a big problem for Iran’s ability to acquire a nuclear weapon, as it would provide a better opportunity for the West to increase pressure against Tehran. It would allow the United States and the West to point out that as Iran is receiving nuclear fuel from Russia it does not need to continue its uranium enrichment for production of the fuel. In fact, this rationale has been clearly enunciated by the US already. The insistence of Tehran to go ahead with its plans subsequently would strengthen the conviction of the international community that it is seeking to produce nuclear weapons, which would then open up the option of using military force, particularly as Israel has been relentless in employing that option to halt Iranian nuclear program. Tehran has responded to such threats forcefully in the past. A recent example was the statement issued by President Ahmadinejad in which he warned of a fierce Iranian retaliation, which he threatened would encompass the whole world in case of a military attack against his country.

Preliminary indicators suggest that Tehran would not give up on its plans to enrich uranium in order to harness the complete nuclear fuel cycle. In a noteworthy statement, Chief of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization Ali-Akbar Salehi stated that after the commencement of work at the Bushehr reactor his country would give top priority to the search of uranium across Iran. He also said that his country had suggested to Moscow that the two countries produce nuclear fuel together at each stage of production in the operations of this reactor (Ashraq Al-Awsat newspaper 26 August 2010, and Al-Hayat newspaper 27 August 2010). This is just an initial indicator of Iran’s desire to achieve independence in producing nuclear fuel in the future.

In sum, Russia–Iran agreement over operations on the Bushehr reactor could be a prelude to resolution of the current nuclear crisis if Tehran remains content with this agreement and retracts from its plans to possess the nuclear fuel cycle. It could also be a prelude to the crisis entering a dangerous new phase with war-like scenarios. The only determining factor in this regard would be the behavior of the Iranian regime and the genuineness of its ambitions. In all cases, Arab Gulf countries should seriously think about the nature of the precautionary measures that they should take to protect themselves from any possible radioactive leak issuing from this reactor and spewing over in its geographic vicinity.