Waiting for Bushehr

The long wait for Iran's first nuclear power plant is finally over. It's now online, but is it ready?

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.

The ill-fated reactor even became a target of that war. In retaliation for Iran's failed September 1980 raid on Iraq's Osirak reactor, Iraq attacked the Bushehr power plant seven times between 1984 and 1988. By the time the fighting stopped in August 1988, the uncompleted plant was in shambles. A European firm estimated that repairs would cost between $2.9 billion and $4.6 billion.

Iran knocked at many doors looking for a partner to complete the Bushehr project, until finally a cash-strapped Russia took on the task in 1992. Moscow's impetus for entering the Iranian market was above all to rescue its post-Soviet nuclear industry from insolvency. On the ruins of the crippled reactor, the Russians planned to build a sui generis nuclear plant -- an amalgam of left-behind antiquated German equipment, Iranian jerry-rigs, and scrambled Russian technology.

But beset by mismanagement, financial difficulties, U.S. pressure, supply glitches, and technical problems, the project was to remain an unfulfilled dream for another decade. Then, just as things were looking up, in July 2010 the Bushehr reactor became collateral damage in a cyberattack by Stuxnet -- a sophisticated malicious computer virus -- that aimed at destroying centrifuges that enrich uranium at another Iranian nuclear facility in Natanz. Although the source of the virus has never been conclusively ascertained, suspicion has been placed squarely on the Israeli and U.S. intelligence community. More dark arts followed: This June, five Russian nuclear scientists who had assisted in the construction of Bushehr were killed in a mysterious plane crash. A month later, an Iranian nuclear scientist was assassinated in Tehran by unidentified men on a motorcycle.

The Bushehr reactor's troubled past could be a prologue to its future. Although the reactor itself does not help Iran obtain nuclear weapons -- the Russians, according to a 2005 agreement, supply its fuel and remove its waste in order to minimize the weapons proliferation risk -- it is plagued with many of the elements that have contributed to the world's major nuclear mishaps, from technical problems to political miscalculations to natural disasters.

Despite having no experience in operating nuclear reactors, Iran is insisting on taking over management of the reactor from Russia only one year after it goes online. The lack of independent nuclear regulators, the absence of highly experienced operators, and Iran's refusal to ratify international conventions on nuclear safety renders Bushehr highly vulnerable to a nuclear catastrophe.

And at Bushehr, despite Iranian claims to the contrary, politics is the priority. Will those politics, as in the Soviet Union's colossal missteps in Chernobyl, take precedence over safety? In August 2010, yearning to prove that delay is not defeat, the Iranian government orchestrated a premature launch of the nuclear plant. This proved to be a major failure: Operators were forced to shut down and remove fuel from the reactor after an antiquated emergency-cooling pump broke down.

More worrisome, perhaps, is that like Japan's doomed Fukushima nuclear power plant -- crippled by this March's earthquake and tsunami -- Bushehr is located in an earthquake-prone area, at the juncture of three tectonic plates. Lusting for the long overdue inauguration, decision makers in Tehran dismissed warnings from Iranian scientists in a May 2011 report about seismic threats. Iran's dim record in emergency preparedness is an ominous sign for the people of Bushehr and their neighbors in other Persian Gulf countries.

Yet last year, Ali Akbar Salehi, the current Iranian foreign minister who was then the country's nuclear chief, said, "Despite all pressure, sanctions, and hardships imposed by Western nations, we are now witnessing the start-up of the largest symbol of Iran's peaceful nuclear activities." What Salehi failed to mention was the tiny share of power this large symbol will provide Iran: Once up and running, the Bushehr reactor will generate 2 percent of Iran's electricity output, which pales in comparison with the 18 percent waste in the country's transmission lines.

After nearly 37 long years, with the inauguration on Sept. 12 and an official launch set for the end of this year, Iran's  wait for its nuclear Godot is finally coming to an end. But given Bushehr's ill-fated history, it might be better off waiting indefinitely.

IIPA via Getty Images


Doom and Gloom

Interpreting the American public mood on the 9/11 decade.

War and fear of terrorism has weighed heavily on the American public mood in the decade since 9/11, with a majority of Americans expressing the view that the country's influence around the world has declined and that the United States has overinvested in its reaction to the attacks of Sept. 11. According to a poll I co-directed with Steven Kull, the public wants to see full U.S. withdrawal from Iraq (even if the Iraqi government asks for American troops to stay) and it wants a reduction in the presence in Afghanistan.

In some ways, this is a stunning shift. The 1990s saw unprecedented American power and influence, a period when the United States basked in the glow of having won the Cold War and successfully confronted the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by building an extraordinary and unprecedented international coalition. Add economic expansion and prosperity, and it is hard to find a decade when America reigned more supreme.

But 9/11, as we all recall, put paid to that: shattering a sense of confidence and imbuing the public with an instant sense vulnerability and helplessness. Within days of that day, I was summoned for consultation with a congressional leader in his office to hear him declare what many had feared: "this can defeat us."

Then came the invasion of Afghanistan. The triumphalism over the relatively quick collapse of the Taliban regime in Kabul was seen by some as arrogance -- but it was largely about rejuvenating public confidence and re-asserting American power. While Americans continued to feel vulnerable to terrorism, that initial sense of helplessness and yes, weakness, lasted but a few weeks. It was replaced by B-52s bombers over Tora Bora, which appeared to accomplish in mere days what the Soviet Union failed to in years. And that mood continued through the "shock and awe" bombings of Baghdad, climaxing in George W. Bush's "mission accomplished" speech.

What followed in Iraq -- the anarchy, the mounting U.S. casualties, the bloody internecine terrorism, the extraordinary sectarian violence -- quickly revealed not only that the mission was far from accomplished but also the limits of military power. Meanwhile, the persistence of the Taliban in Afghanistan only added to this sense of limits. Even the killing of Osama bin Laden was a double-edged sword: While the operation was cause for celebration, it was also a reminder that it took the world's only superpower 10 years to find the most wanted terrorist -- despite unprecedented efforts and expenditures (only to find that he was hiding under the noses of its presumptive ally, the Pakistani Army). Thus, in our poll, we find that while most Americans feel that the killing of bin Laden has weakened al Qaeda somewhat, most don't believe the organization is significantly weaker. And a majority of Americans feel not only that United States has overinvested in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, but also that it has overinvested in building alliances in the war on terrorism.

There was an additional irony in the killing of bin Laden and the legacy he left behind. On the one hand, he lived long enough to watch his nightmare come true, especially in the Arab world, where largely peaceful demonstrations seeking dignity, freedom, and democracy succeeded in doing what he and many of his allies failed to do for years. On the other hand, bin Laden said all along that his strategy was to draw the United States into overextending itself, into revealing its vulnerability, to make it feel the pain. Ten years on, the public mood in the United States reflects the sense that he may have partly succeeded.

Among the tolls of the past decade is a fractured U.S. public. If 9/11 brought Americans together in the early weeks and months following the tragedy, one of the casualties has been national unity. On almost all issues, there are significant differences in the attitudes of Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, on both issues of opinion and fact. A plurality of Republicans (43 percent) remain convinced that Saddam Hussein provided substantial support to al Qaeda, and 41 percent (compared with 15 percent of Democrats and 23 percent of independents) believe that Iraq possessed actual weapons of mass destruction before the Iraq war. A majority of Republicans continue to feel that the Iraq war was justified, while Democrats and Independents take the opposite position. These attitudes are also reflected on a host of other issues, including attitudes toward terrorism, Islam, and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Overall, the American public mood adds up to an increasing isolationism -- a reluctance to intervene internationally or even, in some cases, take sides in foreign conflicts. This is reflected in attitudes toward the Arab uprisings. In a previous poll conducted this April, the American public had a somewhat positive view of the Arab uprisings. A plurality in our newest poll believes that these uprisings are both about ordinary people seeking freedom and democracy and Islamist groups seeking power.

That's not to say that Americans don't have a favorable view of the "Arab people". Of those who want the United States to express its position in the conflicts between the Arab demonstrators and their governments, a strong majority wants the U.S. to support the demonstrators in every country we asked about, including Saudi Arabia. And yet, the overwhelming majority of the whole group of Americans polled does not want the United States to take sides at all, perhaps reflecting fear of a slippery slope leading to military intervention, or at least to more over-investment, particularly at a time of economic crisis.

Attitudes toward Islam and Muslims have also changed significantly over the past decade. Strikingly, right after 9/11, more Americans had a positive view of the Islamic religion than a negative view. Over the decade, this sentiment has turned sour, with our latest poll recording a majority of Americans holding a negative view of Islam, including many of those who didn't have an opinion in the past who now have negative views.

This is despite the fact that a stable majority continues to think that the 9/11 attacks did not represent the intentions of mainstream Islam; that most Americans view the conflict between Islam and the West as driven more by political than cultural factors; and that most express confidence that it is possible to find common ground between Islam and the West (though this is down somewhat from late 2001). And the American public's attitudes toward the Muslim people are relatively warm, with a plurality (nearly half) expressing positive views of Muslims.

Whether or not the Arab uprisings this year will continue to project ordinary Arabs and Muslims seeking what ordinary Americans themselves hold dear -- freedom and democracy -- and continue to have a positive impact on American public attitudes remains to be seen. Whether or not the 9/11 paradigm that still holds fast regarding Arab and Muslims will be replaced by an Arab Spring paradigm will depend much on how events unfold in the streets and capitals of the Middle East in the weeks and months ahead. But what seems to be clear is that it's less 9/11 itself than the long, bloody, and complicated response to it over the past decade that has taken its toll on the American mood.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images