The ancient city of Bushehr, a steamy port in southwestern Iran, is bustling with foreign workers preparing to launch Iran's first nuclear reactor. The Middle East's only commercial nuclear power plant will soon become operational. Back in Washington, officials worry about Iran's emergence as an atomic power and all the many ways it will upset the region's delicate balance. The year is 1978.
Thirty-three years later, history is repeating itself. Today, it is Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instead of the pro-Western Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, and Russian, not German, engineers building the nuclear power plant. But some things are nearly the same: The United States still worries; and the Middle East's only commercial nuclear power plant, we are told once again, is finally, really, at last about to become operational.
The story of Bushehr is one of ambition and folly, of a country whose nuclear dreams survived revolution, war, and religious fervor -- and sometimes common sense itself. But it's not just Iran that is guilty of ambition and folly; so too are its enemies -- among them the United States, Israel, and its Sunni neighbors -- whose monumental opposition to a nuclear Iran has created a set of conditions that virtually requires Tehran now to make good on its goal of harnessing the atom, damn the consequences. And after more than 30 years of this tug of war, it's less a question of who will prevail than what's been lost and overlooked in the fight.
The Bushehr story, in fact, goes back decades, to a time long before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs, when the megalomaniacal shah, endowed by the oil boom, decided virtually overnight that the country needed nuclear power to prepare for life after fossil fuels. He famously used to say, "Oil is a noble material and should not be wasted," and he advocated a greater part for nuclear power in Iran's energy portfolio. For him, nuclear technology was not only the sine qua non of modernity -- it also symbolized Iran's newly attained power and prestige.
At the time, the United States, still reeling from India's first nuclear test, was suspicious of the shah's intentions. Washington refrained from entering Iran's lucrative nuclear bazaar, but Germany stepped in and Kraftwerk Union AG was contracted to build two 1,200-megawatt reactors in Bushehr, along the coast not far from the city of Shiraz, to which the plant would supply power. The turnkey contract was worth $4.3 billion.
Construction began in 1975; the completion date was set for 1981. But fate proved that estimate inaccurate by at least three decades. In 1978, when one reactor was 85 percent complete, the country began descending into revolutionary turmoil, which brought about the demise of both the monarchy and the nuclear program.
One of the first decisions of the revolutionary Jacobins who overthrew the shah was to halt the Bushehr project, deemed as a costly Western imposition on a self-sufficient, oil-rich nation. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, famously suggested that it would be better to use the unfinished reactor buildings as grain silos. But as the wave of revolutionary fervor receded in the early 1980s, the tide turned in favor of reviving the nuclear program. By then, however, Iran was engaged in a bloody war with its neighbor Iraq, and efforts to resuscitate the atomic phoenix came to nothing.