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.
Barack Obama will tell the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday that the United States will “do what we must” to stop Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, according to excerpts from his planned speech.
The president will also say that while there is still time for a diplomatic solution to the crisis that “time is not unlimited.”
Amid mounting tensions over Iran’s nuclear program and talk of a military strike by Israel on Iran, Obama has refused demands from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to set an explicit “red line” for Tehran.
Netanyahu has shown growing impatience over Obama’s entreaties to hold off on attacking Iran’s nuclear sites to give sanctions and diplomacy more time to work.
Underscoring the depth of the problem, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in New York on Monday that Israel has no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated,” ignoring a U.N. warning to avoid his usual incendiary rhetoric ahead of the annual General Assembly session. Iran denies seeking a nuclear bomb.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Monday disregarded a U.N. warning to avoid incendiary rhetoric and declared ahead of the annual General Assembly session that Israel has no roots in the Middle East and would be “eliminated.”
In remarks to reporters in New York, Ahmadinejad also said he did not take seriously the threat that Israel could launch a military strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities, denied sending arms into Syria, and alluded to Iran’s threats against the life of British author Salman Rushdie.
The United States quickly dismissed the Iranian president’s comments as “disgusting, offensive and outrageous.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hinted Israel could strike Iran’s nuclear sites and criticized U.S. President Barack Obama’s position that sanctions and diplomacy should be given more time to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
Iran denies it is seeking nuclear arms and says its atomic work is peaceful and aimed at generating electricity.
“Fundamentally we do not take seriously the threats of the Zionists,” Ahmadinejad said. “We have all the defensive means at our disposal and we are ready to defend ourselves.”
On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met with Ahmadinejad and warned him of the dangers of incendiary rhetoric in the Middle East.
Ahmadinejad did not heed the warning and, speaking to reporters through an interpreter, alluded to his previous rejection of Israel’s right to exist.
“Iran has been around for the last seven, 10 thousand years. They (the Israelis) have been occupying those territories for the last 60 to 70 years, with the support and force of the Westerners. They have no roots there in history,” he said, referring to the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948.
Iran’s most senior atomic energy official revealed on Monday that separate explosions, which he attributed to sabotage, had targeted power supplies to the country’s two main uranium enrichment facilities, including the deep underground site that American and Israeli officials say is the most invulnerable to bombing.
The official, Fereydoon Abbasi, a nuclear scientist who narrowly escaped an assassination in his car nearly two years ago, just before he was appointed to lead the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, said one of the attacks occurred on Aug. 17, a day before international inspectors arrived at the underground site.
The most recent report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations arm that conducts the inspections, said nothing about power cutoffs. On Monday, a spokesman for the agency would not comment on whether power to the site had been disrupted.
There was no way to verify Mr. Abbasi’s assertions; he also contended that the I.A.E.A. had been infiltrated by “terrorists and saboteurs,” suggesting they were responsible for the attacks. But if they were acts of sabotage, as he claimed, they would raise the question of whether Israel, the United States or some groups within Iran had moved beyond cyberattacks to take other steps, short of a military attack, to disable Iran’s nuclear fuel plants.
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s new report on Iran’s nuclear program asserts that Tehran “has carried out … activities that are relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device” and that the agency sees “strong indicators of possible weapon development.” In other words, the IAEA has finally reached the same conclusions that Israel first reached in 1995. So should we really be worried about an Israeli strike now?
Historically, there has been an inverse correlation between Israeli saber rattling and military action, but senior Obama administration officials consistently confirm in private meetings that they take “very seriously” the prospect of an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear sites.
Think of it like this: In one way — and one way only — the potential of an Israeli military strike on Iran is akin to a Herman Cain presidency. Its likelihood is slim, but the potential consequences are too dramatic to ignore.
Although the precise strategy Israel would employ to carry out such an operation is debatable, its objective — to avert a nuclear-armed Tehran — is crystal clear. What’s less clear is how Tehran would react and with what aim. Would the Iranian regime be strengthened or weakened internally? Would it respond with fury or restraint?
To probe these questions, the Brookings Institution in late 2009 assembled two dozen former senior U.S. government officials and Middle East specialists for a daylong simulation of the political and military consequences that would result from an Israeli military strike against Iran’s nuclear program.
The simulation was conducted as a three-move game, with Israeli, U.S., and Iranian teams, each representing their government’s top national security officials. The members of the U.S. team had all served in senior positions in the U.S. government; the Israeli team was composed of a half-dozen experts on Israel, including former senior U.S. officials with close ties to senior Israeli decision-makers; the Iranian team was composed of a half-dozen specialists, including people who had either lived in Tehran or served as U.S. officials with responsibility for Iran.
I had the unenviable task of trying to channel Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The simulation was premised on a surprise Israeli military strike — absent U.S. knowledge or consent — on Iran’s nuclear facilities, motivated by the breakdown of nuclear negotiations, the ineffectiveness of sanctions, and newfound intelligence of secret Iranian weapons activity. In other words, pretty close to what we have before us now.