Last Updated: Sun Oct 17, 2010 00:09 am (KSA) 21:09 pm (GMT)

Bushehr: the Iranian non-event

Abdullah Iskandar

As the Russian nuclear fuel rods entered Iran’s Bushehr reactor yesterday, the authorities in Tehran began – in the words of their officials, experts, writers and supporters – to speak of their historical victory over their adversaries in the world, considering the event to be “the symbol of the heroic Iranian nation’s resistance and determination in achieving its goals” of greatness and might, “despite all pressures, sanctions and hardships forced by Western nations” on the country. In other words, Iranian authorities are trying to portray the Bushehr nuclear plant as the success of a fierce battle they have waged against the West, and as a great scientific victory they have achieved in spite of the siege they are subjected to. Activating the Bushehr reactor represents the outcome of its political and scientific success, and of its determination to challenge the West and defeat it, and to begin forming Iran’s strategic apparatus.

That is the image portrayed by Iran of the event. It may be justified for Tehran to celebrate activating its first nuclear reactor for producing electricity, which would meet the needs of its citizens and reduce its dependence on oil-based energy. Nevertheless, for this event to represent an unprecedented historical development, a victory over foes and the confirmation of some kind of greatness, is a doubtful matter.

Such an event has repeatedly taken place and continues to do so in many countries without it carrying all of this symbolism which Tehran seeks to charge it with. Indeed, even a country like Finland, modest in size at the political and economic levels, now possesses third generation nuclear reactors for producing energy, without it boasting of a historical breakthrough such as the one coming out of Iran.

On the other hand, Iranian officials know that no one in the world would deny the right of any country to peaceful nuclear energy, including Iran. They also know that all UN resolutions concerned with the Iranian nuclear program have stated that it had the right to possess peaceful nuclear energy and that obtaining such energy should be facilitated. It is within such a framework that Russia has continued to work on the Bushehr reactor. Indeed, it is not subject to UN sanctions, because the nature of its use is undoubtedly peaceful. This is what Sergey Kiriyenko, the head of Rosatom, Russia’s Nuclear Energy State Corporation, asserted by insisting that the reactor should be subject to constant supervision by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), as is the case in any other country possessing reactors of this kind. He also insisted on the fact that Russia supplies the reactor with fuel rods and collects the used fuel from it, such that it cannot be used in nuclear weapons.

This means that the reactor has been activated under complete international approval – and under complete international supervision as well. As for claims of victory over the West in this respect, it comes only out of political publicity devoid of any serious content. This is what makes Tehran purposely mix between the Bushehr reactor and other Iranian nuclear sites concerned with the sanctions, in view of the obscurity with which Iran deliberately surrounds its activity – this in order to show that its success in activating Bushehr holds true for success in other places, and that its victory over the West has become certain.

This too is a groundless claim. Indeed, Bushehr was activated by Russia, the country supervising its activation with years of delay, the same country which is enforcing sanctions on the other nuclear sites within the framework of Security Council resolutions. Moreover, activating this reactor would not have been possible had not Iran paid Russia more than twice the cost of any other reactor of the same kind.

This raises the question over what justifies such excessive cost. There is no justification for this except Iranian authorities clinging to their strategy of nuclear obscurity, which they consider to be one source of their might and of “the greatness of the Iranian nation”. Had Iran’s policy enjoyed the guaranteed minimum of transparency, it would have spared its citizens billions of dollars in any international bid to build a reactor for peaceful purposes.

And if there is symbolism to activating the Bushehr reactor, then it is not Iranian. It is a message from the international community to Iran, one that signifies asserting its right to peaceful nuclear energy and the fact that no one denies it this right, as well as the fact that there is complete separation between such a right and the obscure nuclear program on which it is working in other nuclear sites.

As for the technical achievement, credit for it is due to Russia’s Nuclear Energy State Corporation, which adapted its technologies to the French and German technologies used when the reactor was first being built. Finally, regarding the technology of enrichment, the object of the disagreement with the international community, Tehran has developed it outside of the Bushehr reactor, which does not count in this respect.

*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Aug. 22, 2010.

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