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Eyes on the Skies Over Bushehr Nuclear Reactor

Inter Press Service

Iran's light water nuclear power plant at Bushehr is preparing to go "live" – again.

Iranian and Russian nuclear scientists and officials have announced Bushehr's reactor will soon be receiving its first shipment of nuclear fuel 36 years after construction first began on the project.

This claim may be quietly fueling speculation that a military strike on Iran by Israel – or the U.S. – may be imminent.

The Persian-language news site Mardom Salari reported on Aug. 3 that members of Iranian armed forces had been transferred to Bushehr to evaluate the security of the air space above the site. Three drones were said to have been shot down over Bushehr the previous day, as part of an exercise to test Iranian readiness for an aerial attack, intercepted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) defence system.

Mohammad Hoseyn Shanbodi, a political security deputy, told Khalij-e Fars television news that local officials had no advance warning of an impending readiness test. Because they hadn't been briefed about the drones entering Bushehr's air space, no details were available about what happened to the drones after they were shot down.

The test came as a surprise even to Amir Salahian, said to be in charge of Bushehr's defence system. After the incident, Salahian was quoted as saying, "I believe it would have been better if some of the officials in the province would have known about the drill to avoid tension."

The prospect of Bushehr becoming operational coincides with the proliferation of public statements that claim an attack on Iran by Israel or the U.S. is impending and inevitable. Bushehr is strategically located in southwestern Iran on the Gulf coast, directly across from Kuwait.

An aerial assault on Bushehr would have to take place before any nuclear fuel arrives at the site. Beyond that point, an attack on the nuclear reactor would release deadly radioactive fallout into the entire Persian Gulf region and beyond. Besides the catastrophic human and environmental toll of such an attack, the sea lanes through which much of the world's oil supplies pass would be endangered.

Iranians know this. In 1980, Iran bombed Iraq's Osirak nuclear power plant before it contained any radioactive material. Osirak was quickly repaired by the French contractors who built it. Eight months later Osirak was partially destroyed by Israeli jets, aided by Iranian intelligence.

Nothing about Bushehr violates any international agreements to which Iran is a party. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was created to promote the use of "atoms for peace". The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran signed in 1968 and ratified two years later obligates the five nuclear-weapon states (the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China) to assist non-nuclear weapon states that signed the NPT in acquiring and utilising nuclear technology for energy production and other peaceful purposes.

Under the NPT, Iran has the right to produce its own nuclear fuel for civilian projects such as Bushehr. However, suspicions have been raised for nearly two decades that Iran might try to convert low enriched uranium for electricity generation into highly enriched uranium.

IAEA approval of Iran's nuclear energy programme is contingent upon Iran buying its fuel from approved suppliers abroad, and exporting its nuclear waste back to its source so that the radioactive material it contains can't be diverted for use in weapons of mass destruction or fall into the wrong hands. Russia qualifies as an approved supplier.

Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), also told the Russian news wire service Interfax on Jul. 27 that Bushehr won't be affected by U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran.

He said, "No one is against the development of Iran's civilian nuclear programme; the construction of the Bushehr nuclear power plant is being carried out under the control of the International Atomic Energy Agency."

Russia has guaranteed that it will supply all the nuclear fuel needed by Bushehr, and that its nuclear waste will be reprocessed in Russia.

Israeli military and politicians usually equate Iranian access to nuclear fuel for electrical generation with Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon. A light water reactor, Bushehr won't be capable of producing weapons grade plutonium (unlike Israel's heavy water reactor at Dimona).

However, Bushehr's becoming operational will affirm Iran's right to develop and utilise nuclear technology, and give Iran the status and prestige of a nuclear power. Israelis claim this would pose an "existential threat" to the Jewish state.

Once Bushehr's nuclear fuel arrives from Russia, whatever military options against Iran that may be "on the table" that include Bushehr will have to come off. Israel and the U.S. have only a few weeks to launch an attack on Iran before Bushehr has the means to begin generating electricity.

Israeli sources have often hinted that a strike against Iran might be conducted with precision-guided drones, in order to minimise casualties among Israeli soldiers. It's a possibility for which Iranians feel they need to prepare, which may explain the report of drones over Bushehr as the nuclear facility prepares to come online.

Both the IRNA and Interfax have quoted Rosatom's Kiriyenko as saying, "Everything is going according to plan." But nothing about Bushehr has ever gone according to plan, since Siemens began its construction in1974.

After Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini denounced the project as "un-Islamic". Siemens's work stopped during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when Bushehr was targeted by Iraqi aerial attacks. Siemens declined to resume work on Bushehr after the war, partly in response to U.S. pressure.

When Iran signed an agreement with Russia to resume Bushehr's construction in 1995, the power plant had to be totally redesigned to Russian specifications. The contract called for completing the reactor by1999, but technical, political and financial issues arose. The inauguration of the facility has been pushed back at least half a dozen times, most recently from the spring of 2010 to less than a month from now.

Kiriyenko told journalists, "Questions regarding the exact dates should be referred to the Iranian side. The oversight services…are negotiating the final dates with the Iranian customer. The preparations are continuing according to plan, plus or minus a few days, which will not make any serious difference."

This may be a hint that Bushehr's going live is about to be postponed yet again, leaving the window of opportunity for an "inevitable" attack on Iran open a little longer. Iran's political leaders and defence officials are keeping their eyes on the skies. The next drones shot down may not be a test.

Dr. Marsha B. Cohen is a Middle East analyst and a contributor to IPS Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/) who specializes in Iranian-Israeli relations and U.S. foreign policy.

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