While the United States tries to downplay Russia's Dec. 17 announcement that nuclear fuel had been delivered to Iran's Bushehr nuclear facility, Iran is brimming with confidence and making announcements about domestic uranium enrichment activity and the construction of a second nuclear power plant. Tehran has regained — and is keeping a firm grip on — its nuclear bargaining chip to use in negotiations with Washington, but the Bush administration's patience could be wearing thin.
Iran has been oozing with confidence ever since Russia's Dec. 17 announcement that nuclear fuel had been delivered to Iran's Bushehr nuclear facility. After years of politically motivated delays, the Iranians finally got their hands on the key to making Bushehr operational — and thus regained their nuclear leverage in negotiations with Washington after the recent National Intelligence Estimate essentially obliterated an Iranian nuclear weapons threat. The regained leverage lies in the unstated fact that an operational Bushehr can theoretically produce enough plutonium to make a small, crude plutonium bomb on a weekly basis if the Iranians decide to kick out inspectors and tinker with the reactor output. Washington is doing everything in its power to downplay this latest development in Iran's nuclear saga, saying that since Russia has provided fuel (with appropriate International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards), Tehran has no reason to continue enrichment for civilian nuclear power. But the Iranians are milking the Bushehr fuel delivery for all it is worth, and in a flurry of statements Tehran is dramatically inflating the threat of its nuclear program for its own political gain. Immediately following the Bushehr fuel delivery announcement, Atomic Energy Organization of Iran chief and Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh announced on state television that the Bushehr development would not stop Iran's uranium enrichment process, and that enrichment would continue at the Natanz plant in central Iran to provide enough nuclear fuel for local power plants. He went on to say that the 3,000 centrifuges allegedly operating at Natanz would be increased to 50,000. The next day, Iran announced that it had done an aerial survey of "generous amounts" of uranium deposits in central and southern Iran (although how one can spot uranium deposits from the air is a mystery). Aghazadeh also announced Dec. 17 that Iran was building a 360-megawatt nuclear power plant in Darkhovein, south of the city of Ahvaz in the southwestern province of Khuzestan. Iran is claiming all components of this plant would be made by Iranian engineers. But while the Iranians have no doubt carefully watched Russian construction at Bushehr (and diligently taken notes), the construction of a large power generation reactor is a technically challenging undertaking that realistically requires a bit more engineering experience than looking over someone's shoulder. Even India — a country far more advanced both in terms of an engineering base in general and nuclear experience in particular — is still looking to Russia to build nuclear power generation facilities in its country. The Russians also strategically did not give the Iranians the benefit of learning how the reactor vessel for Bushehr was built. That crucial component was built near St. Petersburg and then shipped to Bushehr in November 2001, leaving Iran with the limited knowledge of how to insert an already-built vessel into the reactor design. Meanwhile, Iran has reportedly had to import much of its hardware for uranium enrichment — and that hardware, whether of domestic or foreign manufacture, does not yet appear to be of particularly high quality. That said, the reactors do not require as much fine machining precision as uranium enrichment does. The Russian light water VVER-1000 power unit design (a Russian acronym for water-cooled, water-moderated and with a roughly 1,000 megawatt capacity) now in place in Bushehr is a late Soviet design thought to be more forgiving than comparable Western designs in terms of functionality — but without the full suite of safety features. Even if Iran lacks the capability to build this plant completely on its own, it can break ground and begin constructing the facilities whenever it wants and attempt to extract political benefits from that construction for years without making substantial forward progress with the actual reactor vessel design. With the nuclear card back in its hand, Iran can afford to push the nuclear envelope with the United States to bolster its position in the Iraq negotiations. It comes as no surprise, then, that the Iranians seem to be dragging their feet in the talks and were likely the main impetus behind postponement of a meeting with U.S. officials in Baghdad that was scheduled to take place Dec. 18. While U.S. President George W. Bush's administration is exercising patience in dealing with Iran's nuclear stunts, that patience could soon wear thin, spelling trouble for a future settlement on Iraq. The definition of a nuclear weapons program is highly subjective, as illustrated by the divergence in views between Israel and the United States over whether the production of fissile material represents a weapons program. The United States could easily manipulate the subjectivity of this nuclear debate for political purposes if Washington wanted to revitalize the threat of military action against the Islamic republic. A shift in the U.S. position on Iran's nuclear ambitions does not appear imminent, but it is certainly possible.