Following news that Russia is to start powering up Iran’s Bushehr nuclear facility on August 21, John Bolton suggested that Israel subsequently has just days left to attack it. This is because once Bushehr goes online, any attack would “almost certainly release radiation into the atmosphere,” implying that Israel will “most unlikely … act militarily after fuel rods are loaded.” Both Bolton and the people at Heritage are worried that Russia’s assistance in bringing the plant online will “represent a major step forward for Iran’s nuclear weapons aspirations”, giving the country a “second route to nuclear weapons.”
Bolton concedes that an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities remains unlikely, but pointed out that if Israel was “going to do anything, they certainly wouldn’t be talking about it” – just like before the bombing of Iraqi and Syrian reactors in 1981 and 2007 respectively. However, given the resurgence in speculation on the probability of an Israeli attack, the hawkish nature of Netanyahu’s coalition government, and now even Saudi Arabian media outlets advocating military action, might there be a chance that officials in Jerusalem believe attacking Bushehr is essential?
This depends on whether Israel considers Bushehr to constitute a key element of (what it see’s as) Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Powered by Russian highly enriched uranium (HEU), it is true that when operational, Bushehr will produce plutonium-239, which can ultimately be used to make nuclear weapons. However, the creation of pU-239 is an inevitable by-product of the operation of a nuclear reactor and to assuage any fears that Iran might one day try and use this to create a plutonium based weapon, Russia has stated that it will be reclaiming all of the plant’s spent fuel rods. Although the U.S was initially opposed to Moscow’s involvement in Bushehr, it is for this reason that Washington now finds the powering up of Bushehr as acceptable – and also no doubt because the Russian provided HEU helps challenge Iran’s argument that it needs to produce its own fuel to power its civilian power plants.
Furthermore, Bushehr will also be operating under IAEA safeguards, adding an extra layer of safety (although not to the intrusive levels outlined by the IAEA’s non-obligatory Additional Protocol). As a result, if Iran really did want to one day divert any pu-239 to create a nuclear weapon, both the IAEA and Russian Government would be in a position to call them on it. And in any case, it is unknown if Iran is even close to possessing the technology or capability to extract plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods.
Israel’s attitude towards Bushehr will no doubt be shaped by the Obama administration’s public approval of the plan’s activation. While Israel attacked Syria’s reactor despite private U.S disapproval, Michael Anton is correct to suggest that “this time such an attack would have to take place not merely in spite of an ally’s private objections to the operation but of its public approval of the targeted project.” An attack in this context could thus prove calamitous for Israel-USA relations, something Jerusalem will probably be keen to avoid given the vast military aid it receives from the U.S. Nevertheless, Israel might be more worried about Iran’s intentions and choose to attack anyway.
Indeed, Israel may believe that as Bushehr starts producing pu-239 (enough some say for 30 bombs per year) Iran will become increasingly tempted to master the art of reprocessing in order to facilitate a non-HEU based approach to nuclear weapons production. This might be especially tempting for Tehran given the advanced state of their missile program and the fact that pu-239 allows for smaller, far more powerful warheads than HEU. Israel may also be concerned that although Russia will indeed be collecting spent fuel rods, it can only do so after a several year long cooling process – a time period potentially open to abuse. And as I have pointed out before, the IAEA’s safeguards are hardly watertight, so there is still the possibility that fissile material could be diverted undetected – something that although unlikely, may constitute an unacceptable risk for Israel.
Could Iran one day develop plutonium reprocessing facilities and divert spent fuel rods for nuclear weapon production? Maybe, but this is nothing more than a hypothetical question at the moment. Iran does not does not currently posses this capability; therefore it does not represent a current threat to Israel (who, let us not forget, could deter a nuclear armed Iran with its massive conventional superiority or its second strike nuclear submarine capability). Moreover, the risks associated with any Israeli attack would probably outweigh whatever ‘benefits’ Jerusalem may calculate would result from taking Bushehr out of the picture. Iranian media has already quoted Iran’s defense minister in response to a potential Israeli attack as saying “we may lose a power plant, but the whole existence of the Zionist regime will be jeopardized.” And as an article in The Atlantic outlined last week, any military strike on Iran could lead to a full-scale regional war.
Given the dire consequences of a military strike, it is therefore clear that if Israel really does believe that Bushehr is being developed for weapons use, then, with U.S. support, it should continue to use diplomacy to push Iran to sign up to the Additional Protocol and address the IAEA’s outstanding queries. In addition, more transparency re: its own nuclear program and faithfully attending the 2012 conference on a Middle East free of WMD will also boost Israel’s diplomatic credentials vis-à-vis Tehran.