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Russia's Fueling of Iranian Reactor Is Serious but no Cause for Panic

When Russia’s state atomic agency spokesperson announced plans to fuel an Iranian reactor this month, a wave of anxiety rippled through the mainstream media. Fueling the reactor, after all, is crucial to moving the reprobate state’s nuclear program toward an operational level.

Ratcheting up the tension even more were statements by former UN Ambassador John Bolton, who said that after the nuclear fuel was in place, Israel would be constrained from bombing the facility due to fallout from broken and exposed fuel rods. Bolton even suggested that the date that the Russians were going to fuel the reactor was a deadline of sorts. But Middle East expert and Pajamas Media contributor Barry Rubin dismisses the notion of an Israeli attack now and links to a piece by arms control expert Joshua Pollack, whose analysis shows why Israel has its own timetable and wouldn’t be deflected by such an event.

Experts say the announcement and subsequent fueling are significant events worthy of close scrutiny, but neither is cause for immediate panic.

“It’s highly symbolic,” American Foreign Policy Council Vice President Ilan Berman said from his D.C. office.

Iran has been trying to prove that they’re a de facto nuclear state for a long time and this bolsters their case for acceptance into the nuclear club.

Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Rosatom Corp., told the press last week:

The fuel will be loaded on Aug 21. This is the start of the physical launch (of the reactor).

From that moment the Bushehr plant will be officially considered a nuclear-energy installation.

The United States asked Russia to delay the startup until Iran proves it’s not developing nuclear weapons, but Russian officials are sidestepping the request by saying Bushehr is a longstanding, contracted project agreement between Iran and Russia that won’t affect compliance with recently agreed upon UN and U.S. sanctions.

Behind the scenes, numerous elements come into play in this scenario. First, Iran is striving for both nuclear weapons and nuclear energy. Bushehr, fueled by plutonium rather than uranium, is believed to fall into the latter category. So if there is no international outcry over fueling Bushehr — which there probably won’t be due to the fact that the facility is not a cornerstone of Iran’s nuclear program — the future question is: “if we get sacked for one, why not for the other?”

Second, the Iran-Russia relationship is key in this deal. Bushehr, says Berman, is a Russian debutante; it’s run on Russian technology and brain-powered by Russian engineers and scientists. And most probably, it’s a ruse. Says Berman:

The Russians made the Bushehr facility very high profile — it’s a showcase of their nuclear expertise. It’s also the site most picked over by UN inspectors. But we believe Iran is pursuing overt and covert programs. So the program getting the most attention paid to it is probably not the core nuclear weapons program. Bushehr is important because it shows overall nuclear technology progress but suffice it to say, this fueling feeds into the larger narrative of a nuclear state.

Another element coming into play: by fueling Bushehr, Russia is fulfilling a role as instigator/problem solver. The government is playing by the rules and grudgingly adhering to agreed upon sanctions, while at the same time sticking to the “Bushehr falls under pre-sanction contractual agreements with Iran” line. They’re double-dealing — staying in Iran’s good graces while telling the West what it wants to hear.

Says Berman:

I have a fair amount of skepticism around Russian intentions. They historically create a problem and then posit themselves as the problem solver. They helped build this site 12 years ago, now they’re planning to fuel it — making the problem worse — but falling back on the clause of this being a  contracted deal.

And because of the deal’s nature and the fact that it’s a non-uranium site, international official reaction will probably be rather passive when the August 21 fueling date rolls around. The same provisions keeping Russia’s LUKOIL flowing to Iran — “binding contractual measures” — apply here.

Cause for concern is the larger narrative of Iran as a nuclear state, says Berman, fed by the fueling and used as a regime propaganda tool but “not a game changer insofar as how the international community deals with it.”

The real red line, Berman says, is not fueling the reactor but Russia’s delivery of contracted Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran. Recent reports indicate Iran may be getting S-300 technologies by way of workarounds, i.e., other country vicarious sales from Russia to Iran. Berman:

Russia knows if Iran gets the S-300, that will be the basis for war because Israel will have to attack before the units get deployed. But from a Russian perspective it’s brilliant. They signed a contract and they look good and appear to be cooperating.

Same current dynamic, it appears, but with a higher stake.

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