There’s been concern worldwide for many months that the United States or Israel would launch a military strike on Iran’s Bushehr nuclear reactor before it is started up in order to prevent the radical regime from acquiring a potential route to nuclear weapons.
But the likelihood is diminishing rapidly in light of announced plans by Russia to fuel the project later this week and almost eliminated by the fact that there are numerous Russian and Chinese engineers already on site who would be in the bull’s-eye should an attack be launched.
Though the project itself is civilian in nature, the massive nuclear power station has raised concerns around the world, especially in Israel, that it could produce weapons-grade plutonium.
Located near the Persian Gulf port of Bushehr, the project originally began under the late Shah in the mid-1970s and was resurrected by Moscow in 1995. It is an effort more than 30 years in the making.
The $6 billion complex, when fully operational in mid-2011, will boast two state-of-the-art 500 megawatt light-water nuclear reactors and be among the 20 largest nuclear power stations in the world, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s atomic watchdog
Former United States U.N. ambassador John Bolton says a strike realistically would have to happen before the fuel is loaded, because an attack after the fact could spread radioactive material into the air and water of the region.
“This is a very significant victory for Iran, a very important advance on its years-long quest to get a deliverable nuclear weapons capability,” he said.
“Most military observers [believe] if Israel was going to attack Bushehr, it would do so before the fuel rods were loaded,” said Bolton.
However, other intelligence officials say an attack probably already is precluded by the presence of Russian and possibly Chinese personnel at the complex.
Reports suggest as many as 1,000 Russians will remain in Bushehr to operate the power station. They will fill key roles in the plant’s administration, including the site’s security, say diplomats familiar with the project.
Bolton said while an Israeli attack is at this point “unlikely,” the results of no action are not pleasant.
“The activation of Bushehr will mean that Iran will have a full-scale nuclear reactor, something Saddam Hussein never achieved,” he said.
The State Department said with Russian control of the station’s nuclear fuel and key operational posts, any secret diversion of nuclear fuel would be highly remote.
But Dimitri Perricos, the U.N.’s last chief Iraq arms inspector, who before that was the IAEA’s chief field investigator for more than 20 years, also has doubts.
“I guess that this (Bushehr) will be the only legitimate project of the nuclear program of the country. … If relations between Iran and the international community do not change drastically in time, it will be caught by the (U.N.) sanctions regime. … So, (now) they may celebrate, but it could be a short feast.”
While at the IAEA, Perricos was credited with uncovering both Iraq’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs.
Retired Russian intelligence officials and IAEA officials familiar with Bushehr point out that:
- The containment domes covering the two nuclear reactors have been so hardened that they could withstand a direct hit by a 747. This would make an aerial attack such as Israel’s strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor (“Operation Opera”-June 1981) ineffective, says IAEA sources.
- The completed and reinforced domes are clearly visible in satellite photos from several imaging companies.
- The IAEA explains the only way to penetrate such hardened domes likely would be to use a tactical nuclear weapon, something neither the U.S. nor Israel is likely to employ.
- The presence of Russian technicians could also complicate any military campaign to hit Bushehr.
- Satellite photos of the Bushehr complex revealed the presence of several Chinese-made fast patrol boats docked at the city’s main port. Such boats could provide Iran with a means to counter any prospective naval attack by the U.S. or Israel, say Russian military sources. It is believed that the patrol boats likely are accompanied by Chinese “naval advisers.” In addition to the boats, CIA sources confirm the presence of Chinese-made Silkworm surface-to-surface missiles on the coast near Bushehr.
- Late model Russian surface-to-air missiles (S-300s) are also believed to have been installed on the complex’s perimeters. Some of the batteries are believed to be staffed by Russian personnel.
Overall, Bushehr, it appears, will be guarded by an array of anti-aircraft, anti-ship missiles and a small flotilla of naval vessels, making it one of the most heavily defended sites in the Persian Gulf, explained a retired U.N. official familiar with the region.
Coincidentally, Iran’s defense ministry is scheduled to unveil an “array of new weapons” later this week
So, what is next?
The diplomatic route appears the most likely direction for both Washington and Jerusalem.
Bushehr’s activation will come about one month before Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is due to travel to New York City to address the 2010 U.N. General Assembly.
Also at the 2010 meetings will be President Obama, Russia’s Dimitri Medvedev and the U.K.’s David Cameron. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak is also scheduled to travel to New York to attend the U.N. forum.