If John Bolton wanted to get the world's attention, it worked. Earlier this week the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations took to the airwaves to sound the alarm about the news that Russia will soon start loading fuel rods into an Iranian nuclear reactor it's been building for years outside of the city of Bushehr. "Once that uranium, once those fuel rods are very close to the reactor, certainly once they're in the reactor, attacking it means a release of radiation, no question about it," Bolton said in an interview with Fox Business Network on Monday. "So if Israel is going to do anything against Bushehr it has to move in the next eight days." He repeated the claim (though with varying timelines) to a number of other media outlets in the course of the week.
Bolton also said that he didn't see any signs that the Israelis were preparing an attack -- though that qualification went largely lost in the resulting brouhaha. His remarks may have taken on additional resonance because they followed closely on the heels of the release of an Atlantic Monthly cover story by Jeffrey Goldberg that cast an Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear facilities as a virtual fait accompli. So one can't help but ask: Is the reactor in Bushehr likely to become the target of an Israeli airstrike?
The answer is almost certainly no -- and not just because attacking the reactor after this weekend would release radioactivity into the atmosphere. The reactor has been under construction for almost 30 years. In several of his media appearances Bolton asserted that starting the reactor at Bushehr means that Iran is now embarking on the path to enriching plutonium -- enough, he said in one interview, to produce 40 to 60 plutonium weapons. If that really is the scale of threat, one wonders why the Israelis haven't attacked it already.
The reason is that, frankly, they have better things to worry about. "Bushehr is not the big proliferation risk in Iran," says Mark Fitzpatrick, an expert in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Sure, he says, any reactor -- including a light-water reactor of the type the Russians have built in Bushehr -- is potentially a source of nuclear materials. But there are good reasons to believe that this isn't the case with Bushehr.
The first is that the Russians, largely as the result of years of pressure from the United States, have committed themselves to taking back the spent fuel from the reactor and processing it themselves. In 2005 the Bush administration agreed not to oppose further construction of the plant at Bushehr in return for Russian assurances that they wouldn't give the Iranians control over the fuel. And that deal had a pedigree: When the Kremlin agreed to help the Iranians with the Bushehr plant a decade earlier, the Clinton administration prevailed upon then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin to exclude centrifuges the Iranians had originally wanted to purchase as part of the deal. (Fitzpatrick notes that the Bushehr project also "masked" some less above-board Russian assistance to the Iranian nuclear program that contributed to U.S. suspicions.)
As some experts point out, it would have been hard for the Clinton White House to deny the Russians the chance to build the light-water reactor for the Iranians, considering that the United States had recently done the same for North Korea -- in what proved to be a vain attempt to dissuade Pyongyang from pursuing a nuclear weapons program of its own. (Light-water reactors, it should be noted, pose notably less of a proliferation risk than other types.) The Iranians, after all, are party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which allows them the right to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.