Bushehr power plant: Russia balances on the edge of a sword

Bushehr Nuclear Reactor in IranLast Saturday, Iran saw the physical startup of the first power generating unit of the Bushehr nuclear power plant. This never-ending construction project has long become the talk of the town, brought up anytime the Iranian nuclear program is discussed. It is finally nearing completion in a highly complicated political environment.

Russian-Iranian cooperation began in the 1990s, when Iran was ruled by liberals led by Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the country's richest tycoon and an implacable and vindictive rival of conservative leader Sayyed Ali Khamenei (the successor of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic).

Hashemi-Rafsanjani was very pragmatic in most of his policies aimed at liquidating the "excesses" that remained from the Islamic Revolution as well as the gradual constructive consolidation of the country's role in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Despite a series of economic blunders and corruption scandals, his policy remained fairly attractive and was consistently implemented by the next president, Seyed Mohammad Khatami, who took over when his patron Hashemi-Rafsanjani took a backseat. It was during Khatami's tenure that the Bushehr nuclear project began, after the principal decision was made in 1995.

The fifteen years of Tehran's moderate policies generated a hope for an adequate and positive dialogue on the nuclear and other issues; therefore, Moscow unfailingly shielded Iran from Washington's swipes in the UN Security Council and other organizations.

However, in 2005, Iranian conservatives put Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a young, ambitious reactionary, into the presidential office. The new leader added a hysterical note to Iran's foreign policy as he took office. Simultaneously, Iran began boosting its own nuclear program.

Moscow's pro-Iranian position then looked ambiguous. When it became clear that authoritarian populist Ahmadinejad was consistent in his policies and that the reform-minded wing of the local nobility was not strong enough to stand up to him, Russia began breaking Bushehr project deadlines against the back-drop of mutual accusations of mala fide abidance of the contract's financial terms.

The Bushehr power plant turned into the metaphoric white elephant - a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose. Russia, in turn, kept telling the world that the Bushehr plant would absolutely be commissioned.

The official U.S. position regarding Bushehr was formal and optimistic, with the Department of State cautiously approving Russia's attempts to "civilize" Iran's nuclear drive. However, along with that, U.S. authorities were gradually shaping a negative sentiment in the mass media and expert community, persistently creating a link between the potential startup of the Russian-built power plant and the possibility of Tehran making a nuclear bomb.

This rhetoric was absolutely untrue. Light water reactors like the Russian VVER-1000 cannot be used for production of weapon-grade materials. True, the spent nuclear fuel from a VVER reactor contains about 0.6% plutonium-239, which could possibly be utilized for nuclear warheads, but it is very difficult to separate from other isotopes, which essentially brings its combat value to naught.

The Bushehr plant operation envisaged tight technological control, including delivery of fuel from Russia and the return of the appropriate amount of spent fuel. Any attempt to take energy-grade plutonium from a spent fuel storage site or to unload fuel rods from the reactor beforehand would have been immediately exposed.

Strictly speaking, the Bushehr power plant and the Natanz fuel enrichment facility, which could potentially produce weapon-grade uranium, are two different aspects of the Iranian nuclear problem and therefore should be discussed separately. On the other hand, the assertion that the controlled turnover of fresh and spent uranium fuel for Bushehr would pacify Iran's voluntarism and make it drop further enrichment plans, naturally calls for some sound skepticism. The centrifuges in Natanz were not built so quickly to provide fuel for the country's would-be nuclear energy sector, for which the plans remain vague despite the monstrous state program to build 20 generating units or so.

Tehran's interest toward building its own heavy-water reactors must have similar roots. Although these reactors' use in power generation is questionable, they are extremely convenient for commercial production of weapon-grade plutonium. What's more, these reactors make it possible to manipulate fuel assemblies "on-the-go," which is also convenient when dealing with all sorts of international inspectors, who do not have to be shown everything that's going on at the plant.

Iran's nuclear program is predominantly defense-oriented, and this cannot be changed. Although Ayatollah Khomeini's statement that "Islam does not allow us to use weapons of mass destruction" has not been officially abandoned, it is being creatively reworked now. Uncharacteristically, this is where the liberal and conservative wings of the Iranian nobility find common ground. It is hard to determine the extent to which this policy is the result of Tehran's ambitions to become South Asia's regional superpower. Some of this was certainly spurred by the United States' and Israel's hard-line position, which cannot be ignored by any Iranian government, moderate or not, in line with the realpolitik principle. All the parties involved have sunk too deeply into this confrontation to ever get out.

Under these circumstances, Russia had no choice but to dissociate itself publicly from Ahmadinejad's regime, which was accomplished in spring 2010 along with a breakthrough in U.S.-Russian nuclear reduction talks. After that, Russia refrained from blocking UN Security Council Resolution 1929, tightening sanctions against Iran. This decision in fact suspended several lucrative military equipment contracts with Tehran.

Yet, Russia had to coordinate the drastic condemnation of Iran's nuclear program with the justifiable desire to complete the Bushehr project. The Rosatom state corporation's commercial interests were not the only factor that determined Moscow's policy on the issue, although a number of commentators directly hinted at the opposite. By breaking Washington's resistance to Bushehr, Moscow in fact sends a very clear message: Russia advocates controlled cooperation of peaceful nuclear technology with emerging countries. To what extent will emerging economies be allowed to develop their own nuclear energy? This issue has in fact dominated the recent battling for the top post in the IAEA. By supporting Bushehr, Russia has indicated that it is willing to support the construction of peaceful light-water reactors in any interested countries.

This ambiguous position can significantly harm Moscow's international image, unless given special attention, as the public is largely reluctant to get too deeply into fine issues like the differences between the peaceful and military uses of nuclear energy. The same may happen if a media campaign is organized similar to the notorious search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

However, balancing on the edge of this sword probably has no alternative if Russia wants to extract any positive outcome from the Iranian nuclear deadlock, while at the same time consolidating its own foothold in the global nuclear energy market.

Keywords: Iran, Foreign Policy & Security, Nuclear Energy,Russia & Energy,Russia, Johnson's Russia List, Russia News

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