The showdown over Iran’s nuclear program is likely to accelerate in 2013 as sanctions tighten, Israel threatens military strikes, and the centrifuges keep spinning. While most attention will be focused on the two most oft-discussed sites of uranium enrichment — Natanz and Fordow — a third site on the gulf could prove to be this year’s most dangerous nuclear wild card.
Tucked between two sleepy coastal fishing villages, the Bushehr nuclear power plant has long been seen as the “acceptable” face of Iran’s nuclear program. Built by Russian engineers and monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency, it is already producing electricity, and most nuclear experts agree that it does not merit the same level of concern over weaponization as Iran’s other nuclear sites.
Bushehr, however, could turn out to be the most dangerous piece of Iran’s nuclear puzzle for another reason: haphazard planning and ongoing technical problems mean it could be the next Chernobyl, igniting a humanitarian disaster and explosive economic damage across the oil-rich region.
Technical problems in the past 12 months have raised serious concerns about Iran’s capacity to competently operate the facility. The plant was shut down in October to limit potential damage following the discovery of stray bolts found beneath its fuel cells, the Reuters news agency reported, citing a Russian industry source. Western officials expressed concern about the plant after an I.A.E.A report in November stated that Iran had informed the agency about unexpected fuel transfers. Last week, the emir of Kuwait, Sheik Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, called upon Tehran to work more closely with the I.A.E.A. “to ensure the safety of the region’s state and its people.”
Meanwhile, Russian scientists have delayed the transfer of operations to their Iranian counterparts. That is now expected to occur in March.
Iranian authorities have realized that their longtime ally in Syria is on the way out and have held talks with members of the opposition about a transitional regime, reports the Los Angeles Times. From the piece (with excellent reporting from Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels) it appears that Iran’s government is still not willing to break with Assad, but is increasingly and reluctantly coming to conclude that efforts to save him are doomed.
For those concerned about a possible US-Iranian military conflict — which is to say everyone in the world who cares about war, peace and the price of oil and gas — this is an important moment of truth. The loss of its key ally in Syria will bring dramatic changes to Iran’s position. Will the ruling mullahs and their allies decide that it’s time to call off the confrontation before Tehran is even weaker and more isolated, or will they double down on nukes and a hard line in the belief that nothing else can save them? One way or another, the course of the war in Syria will help determine whether the US finds itself in yet another Middle East war, and watching the Iranians process what looks like the downward spiral in Assad’s fortunes offers clues as to how the larger drama will go.
We aren’t at the decision point yet. At this point the Iranians don’t seem to have completely accepted that their ally cannot survive and the debate in Tehran over Syria policy isn’t over. The government looks to be floundering around hoping to save something out of the wreckage. Experts and officials talk about preserving the “structure of the Syrian state,” presumably hoping for Assadism without Assad: an Alawite dominated state structure that would continue to align with Iran while offering restive Sunnis more economic and political space. The current situation on the ground makes it unlikely that the Sunni opposition would settle for this now, but if the government’s military situation stabilizes, Tehran seems to hope that international pressures for a negotiated, compromise solution would grow.
On Valentine’s Day 1989, the writer was informed that the decrepit head of Iran’s “revolutionary” regime, Ayatollah Khomeini, had issued a fatwa calling for his death. The stated cause of the edict was the novel he had just written, The Satanic Verses, which supposedly insulted the followers of Muhammad by slandering the Prophet’s wives. For the next decade, he lived precariously: he was forced into hiding; his Japanese translator was murdered; his Italian translator and Norwegian publisher suffered violent attacks. On one occasion, when he feared for his young son’s safety, he seems to have come close to breaking down.
This brief sketch of the most-harrowing years of Rushdie’s life was, I promise, written by me. But the paragraph could be Rushdie’s. Joseph Anton, his new memoir, is composed almost entirely in the third person. (The title was Rushdie’s pseudonym while in hiding; he combined the first names of Conrad and Chekhov.)
If it would ordinarily be obtuse to liken Rushdie’s ordeal—which was, after all, the result of religious mania—to an out-of-body experience, the comparison nevertheless remains a useful way of grasping what he endured. As the author said in a recent interview with a piously awed Jon Stewart, he wrote Joseph Anton as if he were recounting someone else’s life.
And yet Rushdie’s decision to use the third person is only a slight variation on the choices that have guided his entire career. With his literary allusions, his puns, and his often-ingenious wordplay, Rushdie has exhibited, in alternately inspired and tiresome fashion, a near-Joycean desire to manifest the expansiveness and allusionary possibilities of language. Although this book, with the exception of some amusing “letters” to various adversaries, is stylistically rather straightforward, the form does help situate it with Rushdie’s other writings. But Joseph Anton does not merely epitomize the strengths and weaknesses of its author; by defining the fatwa as the hinge moment of his life, Rushdie offers readers the opportunity to examine his work through the same prism.