Written by Kathy Shaidle
Referring to Iran's atomic power plant in Bushehr, Reznikov recently speculated that it is just months away from becoming fully operational. "I think that in December, January and February a whole range of technological events will be conducted that will demonstrate the irreversibility of the plant's physical launch in the foreseeable future," Reznikov said.
This revelation should not come as a complete surprise. The Bushehr plant has been in the works since 1995, when Russia and Iran signed a $1-billion dollar deal for the construction of a 1000-megawatt light water reactor. To be sure, Iran insists that its nuclear ambitions are peaceful and aimed only at increasing domestic energy sources. Indeed, Iran has promised to send spent nuclear fuel back to Russia, and the UN nuclear watchdog agency notes, "Tehran currently enriches uranium-235 to a level of 3.7 percent, which can only be used for the generation of electricity. Nuclear arms production requires an enrichment level of above 90 percent."
Still, some troubling questions remain. Steve Schippert of the Center for Treat Awareness has wondered why Iran has continued "enrichment if Russia supplies the fuel for its only production reactor? And, what use does Iran have for the enriched uranium it will soon begin producing in significant quantities itself?"
The U.S. government is similarly alarmed by the prospect of a nuclear Iran, especially since Tehran's partner in nuclear development is a newly aggressive Russia. During a visit to Italy on Tuesday, Vice President Dick Cheney reiterated the American position that Iran "must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons" and should comply with U.N. resolutions requiring it to cease uranium enrichment. Two new Congressional bills - the Iran Counter Proliferation Act and the Iran Sanctions Enabling Act - underline America's determination to use diplomacy and economic sanctions to prevent Iran from getting the ultimate weapon.
Soft-power is, however, an imperfect solution. While the U.S. and its European allies are united in their support for stiffer sanctions, Russia has merely to use its U.N. Security Council veto to blunt their effect. This helps explain why the country most immediately threatened by a nuclear Iran - Israel - has supported more assertive measures, including an attack if necessary. P. David Hornik reports that former Israeli deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh has sent a message to Presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama, which reads in part:
No government in Jerusalem will accept a nuclear Iran. Once it is clear Iran is at the point of nuclearization, an Israeli military action to prevent it will be on the agenda.
Sneh does, however, propose "real" sanctions as an option, such as an embargo on oil industry replacement parts. That is not the view of Israel's top security officials, who are determined to launch a military strike against Iran but feel obstructed by the U.S. They complain that the U.S. has offered Israel defensive radar rather than the over flight codes it would need to launch an attack on Iranian nuclear facilities.
Compounding such concerns are this week's conflicting reports, from the Jerusalem Post and elsewhere, that Iran has acquired a number of S-300 air defense systems from the former Soviet Union and placed them around Iran's nuclear sites. One of the most advanced "multi-target anti-aircraft missile systems in the world today," the S-300 has "a reported ability to track up to 100 targets simultaneously while engaging up to 12 at the same time. It has a range of about 200 kilometers and can hit targets at altitudes of 27,000 meters." Some experts maintain that such a system makes a military strike on Iran, whether by the US or Israel, much more complicated.
But others are unimpressed. Steve Schippert doubts whether the Iranian missile system is really so formidable. "Of course the Iranians would typically oversell this as making a strike on Iran impossible," he says. "We've heard this all before. Iran said and did the same thing a couple of years ago with the Russian TOR-M1 anti-air missile defense system." And yet, the Americans and Israelis successfully hacked that system, and then "destroyed the joint Syrian-Iranian-North Korean plutonium plant nearing operation."
Whatever the actual capabilities of the system, it highlights yet again the dangers of the atomic alliance between Russia and Iran. Even beyond the military front, the alliance is worrying. Russia's recent invasion of Georgia was designed in part to strengthen the Kremlin's grip over the energy and export supply routes to its captive customers in Europe in Asia. Similarly, its military partner Iran controls the vital Straight of Hormuz. It's a recipe for energy blackmail.
None of this is a foregone conclusion. Pace Leonid Reznikov, a nuclear Iran is not "irreversible." But if the United States and its European allies are serious about containing the Iranian threat, they must do more to discourage Tehran than an obstructionist Russia has done to buttress its perilous cause.