reflections

Aug 19, 2010 | 10:55 GMT

5 mins read

Iran's Nuclear 'Red Line'

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
If media reports are to be believed, the clock is ticking for Israel or the United States to destroy Iran's Bushehr nuclear power plant, Iran's first atomic power generation facility, because fueling of the reactor begins on Saturday. This is indeed a significant event for Iran's nuclear program; one fissile isotope that can be found in the output of nuclear reactors is Plutonium-239, which can be reprocessed for use in a nuclear device. Should Iran break International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards at Bushehr, it could conceivably divert and begin to reprocess spent nuclear fuel for use in a nuclear device. Iran likely has the chemical capability to reprocess the plutonium, though the procedure is incredibly radioactive and toxic and would require considerable equipment and facility preparations for safely diverting, handling and controlling reactor output. And while the IAEA should be able to sound the alarm when there is a significant diversion of fuel at a monitored facility, it can do nothing to physically stop it. Iran seems to be on the verge of crossing a critical red line. While the fueling of Bushehr may be an important milestone, it is not a recent or surprising development. The project dates back more than 35 years to a deal between the German company Siemens and the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 revolution that established the modern Islamic republic, Siemens abandoned the project under political pressure and the facility was repeatedly bombed by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. Only in 1995 was Iran able to sign a new deal with the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) to rebuild and finish the plant, which has been on the verge of completion for years now. (Moscow has repeatedly announced delays on finishing the facility, which has become a favorite political lever to use against both Tehran and Washington.) Indeed, the first consignment of nuclear fuel from Russia has been on the ground in Iran since the end of 2007, and Bushehr has been inching toward this point ever since — a point that has been, in the end, all but inevitable. If Bushehr was Osirak in Iraq in 1981 or a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, Israel would have destroyed it long ago. But Bushehr is not in Iraq or Syria, and it is not the heart of Iran's nuclear efforts. Israel and the United States obviously are opposed to Bushehr coming on line, but the idea that Iran is about to cross a red line misunderstands the issue. It is all too common to speak of unacceptable thresholds, both for individual nations and the international community, when it comes to illicit nuclear programs. The problem is that such thresholds only apply when an entity is willing and capable of enforcing them — regardless of the consequences. North Korea, though far from a robust nuclear power, was not stopped from crossing the nuclear red line. Despite the rhetoric of the red line, the costs and risks of stopping North Korea's nuclear program outweighed the benefits. Pyongyang's true "nuclear option" has long been the destruction of Seoul — not with a nuclear device, but with divisions of conventional artillery batteries positioned in hardened bunkers in the mountains just across the border. No one was willing to risk Seoul in exchange for a risky and uncertain attempt to prevent the emergence of a few crude North Korean atomic devices. Thus far, Iran has fallen on the same side of the cost-benefit equation. Iran's nuclear program is not simply a matter of Bushehr. Iran would have a nuclear program of international concern without Bushehr at all — one based on uranium, not plutonium. Tehran learned from the Israeli bombing of the Iraqi Osirak reactor in 1981 by dispersing and burying its uranium-based nuclear efforts in hardened facilities. Iran is no slouch at internal and operational security, and the program's secrecy has been reinforced with a deliberate and extensive disinformation campaign. In other words, it would require an extensive air campaign to even attempt to destroy Iran's nuclear program, and there is considerable uncertainty about whether such a campaign would even be successful in that regard, rather than simply setting the program back a few years. This is why STRATFOR's position has long been that Israel cannot independently carry out the air campaign it wants; it needs the United States to do the job. If Bushehr was Osirak in Iraq in 1981 or a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007, Israel would have destroyed it long ago. But Bushehr is not in Iraq or Syria, and it is not the heart of Iran's nuclear efforts. Since Israel cannot achieve the desired degree of destruction of the Iranian nuclear program on its own, the question, therefore, has always been whether the United States is willing to conduct an air campaign against Iran. The cost of such a campaign could come in the form of Iranian retaliation against an already tenuous U.S. position in Iraq and Afghanistan, reprisal by its proxies in the Levant and perhaps elsewhere, as well as an Iranian attempt to close the Strait of Hormuz in the midst of a still-shaky global economic recovery. So far, Washington has declined to attack Iran — for reasons that have nothing at all to do with the timetable for Bushehr becoming operational.

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