Going Nuclear (Interview with The Majalla)
22 September 2011
By Maryam Ishani (Senior Editor of The Majalla)
The completion of the Bushehr nuclear plant has stirred up further controversy over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Iran continues to emphasize its entitlement to explore atomic energy as an alternative to fossil fuels, but the US remains skeptical while Russia attempts to seize the advantage.
Last week Iran celebrated the inauguration of its first operational nuclear power facility after long delays in construction and controversy over the aims of Iran’s nuclear program. The Bushehr plant, located on the Persian Gulf, is the first of what Iran hopes will be a network of similar facilities that will help reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
The ceremony was attended by Russia’s Energy Minister, Sergei Shmatko, who praised the joint project as an understanding that “has come about after three years of cooperation between our experts” which will allow the Russia and Iran to “prepare the grounds for future cooperation in this field.” But the collaboration has been a far more complicated than the two governments have admitted to.
In a deal between Iran and Russia, Russia took over the completion of the plant after the German venture Kraftwerk Union AG pulled out under pressure from the US. However the agreement initially would have seen the plant completed in 2007 not 2011. According to Iran geopolitical expert, Ali Fathollah-Nejad, at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, the delays continued because of the introduction of Russia’s own objectives in the project. “There is a lot of frustration in Iran because of Russia beginning to play its own games as a sort of intermediary between the West and Iran.”
Most notably, the arrangement Iran has agreed to with Russia includes provisions for returning fuel that Iran has purchased for the operation of the plant back to Russia after processing. It cannot remain in Iran, despite the fact that Iran technically owns the fuel—making the program particularly costly and according to Fathollah-Nejad, makes Russia’s role as a broker between the West and Iran, a hypocritical one.
This is due in large part to the ongoing UN Security Council “Zero Enrichment” sanctions—renewed in June—that remain imposed upon Iran, which are aimed at barring Iran from enriching uranium regardless of the aim. Russia voted in favor of the resolution but later used the same resolution to bar Iran from joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in 2009, saying that Iran’s eventual membership could be “one of the carrots that is part of a larger deal” to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran.
“Even though the facts have changed on the ground,” says Fathollah-Nejad, “the sanctions continue because of claims that the program is not transparent enough. The removal of the sanctions needs a whole re-thinking of the dialogue on Iran’s nuclear program. There is a new reality on the ground.”
Bushehr’s start-up comes after Iran declared its readiness to re-start talks on its nuclear project with major powers, in a letter to the European Union Foreign Affairs chief. But that dialogue seems out of reach. The inauguration of the plant only adds to what was already a very tense standoff between the United States and Iran over the intentions and capabilities of Iran’s program.
At the United Nations General Assembly on Monday, the two countries traded accusations at a meeting of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with US Energy Secretary Steven Chu accusing Iran of “a long-standing pattern of denial, deceit, and evasion, in violation of its non-proliferation obligations. Time and time again, Iran has refused to satisfy legitimate concerns about the nature of its nuclear programme—selectively rejecting IAEA requests for access to, and information about, its nuclear facilities.”
Iranian nuclear energy chief Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani rebuffed Chu’s comments with a reference to the recent murders of high-level nuclear scientists in Iran, placing the blame squarely on the West: “Some countries and their intelligence terrorist organisations have focused on assassinating our experts,” he said. His comments refer to the most recent murder of a University lecturer in July, Darioush Rezaie. His was the third murder since 2009 of a scientist with connections to Iran’s nuclear program. The first was killed by a car bomb, the second by a remotely detonated explosive device and Rezaie was killed by gunmen near his home.
Speaking to press after the meeting, Fereydoun Abbasi-Davani, who is Iran’s Vice President and head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, said that the “hostile positions” of western states could only force countries like Iran to conduct their nuclear activities secretly or “underground,” according to translations of his comments at the UN. Abbasi-Davani has been subjected to UN sanctions because of his involvement with Iran’s nuclear program and was even wounded in a car bomb blast in 2010, an incident he has accused the West and even the IAEA of orchestrating.
Fathollah-Nejad sees the challenges of the last decade as an example to developing economies, “The fact that Bushehr has been finalized indicates to the success of Iran’s insistence to use its internationally legally recognized rights to develop a nuclear energy programme, despite heavy and continuous pressures from big powers. As such Iran can be seen as an example. Hopefully it will propel the West to abandon coercive diplomacy on Iran.”
Iran says the one billion US dollar, 1,000-megawatt Bushehr plant is part of a peaceful atomic program and will be enriching uranium only at levels suitable for medical and agricultural uses. The plant is not yet operating fully but is on track to be operating at maximum capacity within three months.
Still, Iran has begun moving uranium enrichment centrifuges to a bunker buried in the mountains near Qom as part of an effort to increase capacity and protect the equipment from a strike by foes of the nation’s nuclear program, namely Israel. Washington has denied involvement in the murder of the scientists and Israel has said that it is “increasingly concerned” with the Bushehr plant.
Fathollah-Nejad points out, “For almost a decade, the IAEA has been investigating if there is a weaponization element to Iran’s nuclear program, but has found no evidence,” making the official justification for sanctions illegitimate. “The dropping of sanctions,” according to Fathollah-Nejad, “would be the first indication that the policy on Iran is changing.”
Ishani, Maryam (2011) “Going Nuclear: Iran Completes Construction of Bushehr Nuclear Power Facility“, The Majalla: The Leading Arab Magazine (online), 22 September.