August 28, 2010

"Fallout" from the Iranian nuclear program

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Anyone who has had access to any form of media over the last few weeks is aware that Iranian and Russian technicians have begun loading uranium fuel rods into the nuclear reactor at Bushehr, a port city in the northern Persian Gulf. While much has been made of this reactor and possible ties to a suspected (and fairly well accepted) Iranian nuclear weapons program, the Bushehr reactor is under International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards.

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Theoretically, the fuel for the Bushehr reactor will be supplied by the Russians, and spent uranium fuel rods will be returned to Russia for disposal or further processing - but will not be available to the Iranians. There are IAEA inspectors at the plant to make sure this happens. It is important that the inspectors do their jobs - the reactor will produce as a byproduct of its operations a fissile isotope of plutonium, plutonium-239 (P-239).

P-239 is the primary fissile isotope used in the manufacture of nuclear weapons. Given the Russians' track record in dealing with the Iranians and Moscow's loose interpretations of the United Nations sanctions protocols against Iran, it is imperative that the IAEA ensure that Iran does not have access to the spent fuel. That access would catapult their nuclear weapons program - a program they deny but virtually no one believes them - to an almost instant weapons capability.

I was startled to see almost no world reaction to an Iranian proposal last week that the Iranians and the Russians share the control of the fuel cycle for the Bushehr reactor. This is ludicrous. The Iranians have shown no willingness to cooperate with the rest of the world on their uranium enrichment program - now they want to enter into a joint operation with the Russians for a reactor that produces the world's most dangerous nuclear isotope. You have to give them credit for trying. I hope the rest of the world - especially the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) - see this for what it is: access to weapons grade fissile material.

Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear power generation capability and a nuclear weapons arsenal are not lost on its neighbors to the west. Of course, its neighbors to the east - Pakistan and India - already possess nuclear weapons.

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The Gulf Arab states as well as other nations in the region are concerned with Iran's aspirations to be the dominant power in the region. Iran is not only developing a nuclear weapons capability, but the ballistic missiles with which to deliver them, and a host of new conventional weapons to defend against any attempts to halt their progress.

Let's take a look at what the Iranian nuclear program has spawned or re-energized. Keep in mind that unlike the United States and its World War II Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, nuclear energy programs are usually the first step towards a nuclear weapons capability.

Egypt has just announced the construction of a nuclear power plant at al-Dabah on the Mediterranean coast about 100 miles west of Alexandria. Although this will be a power plant, the words of Egyptian head of the International Center for Nuclear Weapons at the United Nations are telling: "Egypt will not enjoy its sovereignty unless it has the strength to implement a just peace...I am of the opinion that possessing an atom bomb is essential if you want to enjoy power and sovereignty."

Egypt proposes to have four plants operating by 2025 in addition to its existing two research reactors at Inshas. Could there be a nuclear weapon program hidden in there? If Iran has nuclear weapons, Egypt - which regards itself as the leader of the "Arab nation" - certainly will develop them as well.

Saudi Arabia
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia announced the development of the first nuclear power plant in the Gulf Arab states - it will supply electricity to portions of the capital, Riyadh. Saudi Arabia and Iran are competitors for the role of key power broker in the Persian Gulf. If Iran has nuclear power, then the Saudis will want it as well. If Iran has nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia will certainly procure them as well. Notice I said procure. The Saudis will likely attempt to purchase the weapons rather then develop them on their own. That in itself opens up yet another proliferation can of worms.

Other countries with nuclear ambitions
- The United Arab Emirates has three nuclear power plants in the planning stage with proposals for 11 more, the first of which will be on line by 2017. Other states of the Gulf Cooperation Council are also reviewing the possibility of producing nuclear power to allow them to export their oil and gas to foreign markets - or at least that's their story....

- Even the small Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has decided to build nuclear power plants. Oil-poor Jordan actually has a need for an electrical power generation capability. The first reactor is planned for the al-'Aqabah area, with three additional plants to transform the country into an energy exporter.

- Turkey has two proposed nuclear power plants to be built by Russia and South Korea. This will augment their three research and one fuel production facility. Turkey is an interesting case as it draws closer to Iran. Turkey and Brazil attempted to broker a deal whereby Iranian enriched uranium would be sent to Turkey in exchange for nuclear fuel.

Other countries in the region also have small, purely research reactors: Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Syria. Of course, Syria attempted to secretly build a large reactor out in the northeastern desert area called the Jazirah. It is believed that the reactor was being built with North Korean assistance - and possibly Iranian funding. Israeli fighter aircraft destroyed it in September 2007. That reactor was almost certainly part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program.

As Iran continues to develop its nuclear programs - power and weapons - it is only logical for other nations in the region to do the same. It is just a matter of time before we see more nuclear-armed states in this volatile region. This is the "fallout" of Tehran's program.