Question:

On July 26, 2002, Russia announced that it was building six nuclear reactors for the Islamic Republic of Iran, four at Bushehr and two at Akhvaz. This project includes a uranium-conversion plant that can be used for, among other things, uranium enrichment.

Is the purpose of this multi-billion dollar enterprise:

a) to provide Iran with additional megawatts of electrical energy for its power grid, or

b) to provide Iran with a "full ticket" nuclear threat (or deterrent)?

Answer:

Nuclear reactors have dual-purposes: providing electric energy and providing nuclear technology. Iran does not have any immediate need for the 1,000 megawatts of electricity that the Bushehr reactor would provide, as is demonstrated by its destroying gas from its oil fields that would produce otherwise 3,600 megawatts. It is therefore safe to assume that the purpose of these nuclear reactors is to provide Iran with the technology it needs to transform itself into a nuclear power.

To build nuclear warheads, Iran needs a supply of fissile material, which is either enriched uranium or weapon-grade plutonium. Its initial deal with Russia in 1995 included a centrifuge plant which would have provided Iran with this fissile material. But the plant was then canceled under American pressure. But it could still get the fissile material from the spent nuclear fuel (SNF), which, when reprocessed, yields plutonium.

Russia claimed that the agreement called for all the spent nuclear fuel to be sent back to Russia. However, leaked government documents (released by Greenpeace) reveal that Russia, despite these public assurances, had no contract for repatriating this spent nuclear fuel from Iran. A Russian government official said "The only reason we knew there was no plan for the SNF from the original Bushehr reactor is because internal documents were leaked to the press." He added, "The ‘protocol of intent' means nothing in terms of repatriating the fuel." So Iran may well have the expectation that one way or another it will gain access to fissile material after Bushehr is operational in 2003.

In explaining Russia's rationale, General Yuri Baluyevsky, the Russian Deputy Chief of Staff said at a press conference in June 2002, "Iran does have nuclear weapons. These are non-strategic nuclear weapons. I mean these are not ICBMs with a range of more than 5,500 kilometers... As for the danger of Iran's attack on the United States, the danger is zero." General Baluyevsky's extraordinary briefing implied that Iran had acquired its fissile material from another source so there was no reason for Russia not to complete the nuclear reactor at Bushehr. He concluded"This co-operation will continue." (The cooperation, aside from nuclear reactors, included the delivery of Russian Kilo-class diesel- powered submarines, Mig-29 fighters, Sukhoy bombers a global navigation system and satellite-launching assistance .)

General Baluyevsky's assurances did not take into account, however, Iran's program for developing missiles.

By 2002, Iran had tested a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the Shahab-3 (based on North Korea's Nodung missile) and had under development longer range missiles, called the Shahab-4,5,6. These latter missiles become intercontinental by adding a solid-fueled stage. For Iran, a country with a 400 billion dollar gross domestic product, this is not an unattainable goal.

Indeed, in 1998 (under Clinton), the Rumsfeld Commission concluded : "The ballistic missile infrastructure in Iran is now more sophisticated than that of North Korea, and has benefited from broad, essential, long- term assistance from Russia and important assistance from China as well... We judge that Iran now has the technical capability and resources to demonstrate an ICBM-range ballistic missile ...within five years."

If Iran can siphon off small quantities of plutonium from its reactors, and if the Rumsfeld Commission's predications are accurate, the Islamic Republic of Iran may have both nuclear warheads and intercontinental- ballistic missiles (which do not need pinpoint accuracy to attack cities) by the end of 2003.


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