Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 3 Issue: 173

On Monday September 18, the chief of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), Sergei Kiriyenko, told reporters in Vienna that Iran’s Bushehr nuclear power reactor will be operational by September 2007 and is scheduled to begin producing commercial electric power in November 2007. Kiriyenko also confirmed that Iranian Vice President Gholamreza Aghazadeh, chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (in charge of Iran’s nuclear program), will visit Moscow next Monday, September 25, to finalize agreements to launch the Bushehr reactor (RIA-Novosti, September 18).

Bushehr was partially constructed in the 1970s by Germany’s Siemens and abandoned unfinished after Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1978. The Russian company Atomstroiexport has been rebuilding Bushehr for over 10 years. It has been reported that today the reactor is over 90% complete, although the previously announced launch date of October 2006 will pass without the reactor becoming operational. Now Kiriyenko insists that the new September 2007 deadline is final (RIA-Novosti, August 29, September 18).

Sources at Atomstroiexport say the long delay in completing Bushehr has been simultaneously technical, political, and financial in nature. In the 1990s when oil prices were low, Iran was not paying Atomstroiexport and its Russian subcontractors on time or in full for services rendered. Nowadays most of the $1 billion stated Bushehr price tag has been already disbursed by the Iranians to Russia, according to former Atomstroiexport officials, including former CEO Kakha Bendukidze, a well known Russian industrialist in the 1990s and early 2000s and, since 2004, a Georgian government minister.

With the financial problems ostensibly solved, Kiriyenko has blamed technical difficulties, including the failure of Russian subcontractors “to deliver some assembly units” (RIA-Novosti, August 29). At the same time, it is clear that there are serious politics involved: While there is no internationally acceptable solution to the Iranian nuclear problem, Moscow has apparently been dragging its feet in making the final, irreversible step of actually launching Bushehr — a step that could provoke a major Russo-American crisis.

For some time now, the Iranians have pressed Moscow to deliver the nuclear fuel rods for Bushehr well ahead of the reactor launch. The fuel — some 100 tons of low-enriched uranium — is ready for delivery and is currently stockpiled at a Rosatom plant in Novosibirsk. The fuel must be delivered to Iran to be loaded into the reactor at least several months before it may be launched, and that is when the principal Russo-American problems may begin.

Most nuclear experts agree that the nuclear arms proliferation threat posed by the light water Bushehr VVER-1000 (1,000 megawatt) reactor is limited: It will produce tons of plutonium, but consisting of an isotope mix that cannot easily be used to make bombs. Moscow has also secured an agreement with Tehran that the spent fuel must be sent back for reprocessing.

However, plutonium is not the only proliferation danger. Iran today ostensibly possesses all the technologies needed to enrich uranium, but the principal problem is that it lacks uranium to enrich. Any natural uranium deposits that have been so far discovered in Iran are small, while the United States has up to now managed to block all attempts by Tehran to buy natural uranium oxide (yellow cake) on the world market.

The arrival of the Russian nuclear fuel may drastically change the situation: By diverting a relatively small fraction of the 100 tons of the 4% enriched uranium 235 fuel, the Iranians could dramatically speed up their nuclear program and produce hundreds of kilos of arms-grade uranium (over 90% enrichment) in a year or so, using a limited amount of enrichment centrifuges. It is technically much easier to move from 4% to 90% enrichment, than from 0.7% as in natural uranium, to 4% and a nuclear weapon requires only 20 kilos of arms-grade uranium to make.

Washington has already told Russia that, while the continued slow construction of Bushehr is OK, the actual transfer of nuclear fuel without a comprehensive solution of the Iranian nuclear problem is unacceptable. Will the Russians heed this warning? While in Palestine on September 8, Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov angrily told a news conference that it is “a clear provocation” to suggest that Russia may stop constructing Bushehr and move its specialists out (RIA-Novosti, September 8, 2006).

The pro-Kremlin news site reported on September 11 that Russia will not only sell Iran modern anti-aircraft Tor-M1 missiles (a billion-dollar deal announced last November), but also provide more powerful, longer range S300 anti-aircraft missiles and other modern weapons “needed to defend Bushehr and other strategic targets” against possible U.S. air and missile attacks.

It is obvious that at least part of the ruling Russian elite is ready to openly side with Iran against the United States, to block the imposition of any sanctions in the United Nations while providing Tehran with modern weapons and nuclear materials. But will Russia’s ultimate decision-maker, President Vladimir Putin, risk a showdown? Up to now Putin has opted to postpone a decision, which has meant Bushehr has also been postponed. But the time for pondering is rapidly running out, and Washington and Tehran are both pressing for a clear answer — something Putin always hates to give.