Apocalypse Now?

Iran goes nuclear -- and sends a troubling message to Israel and the West.

On Saturday, after thirty-six years of on-and-off development, Iran’s nuclear power plant at Bushehr finally went online. Iranian and Russian engineers loaded its first dose of Russian-supplied nuclear fuel. The plant is supposed to start producing electricity in another two months.

Iranian officials were jubilant. Conservative lawmaker Javad Karimi said Friday that “The startup operations will be a big success for Iran. It also shows Iran’s resolve and capability in pursuing its nuclear activities.” Hard-line leader Hamid Reza Taraqi said the launch would “show the failure of all sanctions” against Iran.

Used fuel from the reactor could be used to make atom bombs. Russia, however, has avowed that it will remove all the used fuel and transfer it to Russia for reprocessing. Many in the West, including Israel, are reassured by this.

Yossi Melman, an Israeli author and journalist on security issues, writes that “experts and military officials in Israel, the United States and Western Europe say the prospect the reactor will be used in Iran’s military nuclear program is extremely small.” Ephraim Asculai of Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies claimed that “even if the Iranians wanted to use that waste to develop a weapon, it won’t be simple to deceive the Russians.”

Asculai explained: “Even when the fuel is outside the reactor, you need a big separation plant. It’s a long, complicated and dirty chemical activity, and at the moment there are no signs that Iran is building such a plant.”

The Jerusalem Post, however, was less confident, saying “it is not entirely clear to what extent the large quantities of [used fuel] set to be produced can be tracked. Nor is it clear that Russia can be trusted to dispose of that spent fuel. And what happens if Iran cuts ties with Russia in the middle of the deal and remains in possession of the fissile material?”

The latter scenario is certainly plausible. And as for Russia’s relationship with Iran, and intentions, there are indeed many reasons for distrust. Just two recent ones are Russia’s announcement earlier this month of plans to base heavy warships in Tartus, Mediterranean port of Iran’s ally Syria; and Russia’s leading role in undercutting the Western sanctions on Iran even after it voted in favor of them in the UN Security Council.

Beyond the issue of whether the startup of Bushehr creates a security threat in itself, however, looms the larger issue of what it means for the West’s effort to stop Iran’s nuclear progress.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry asserted on Sunday that “It is totally unacceptable that a country that blatantly violates decisions of the United Nations Security Council and the International Atomic Energy Agency, and ignores its commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty charter, will enjoy the fruits of using nuclear energy.” The New York Times wrote that “the opening was sure to upset United States diplomats, who had encouraged Russia to delay it as a way to add to economic sanctions imposed on Iran because of its refusal to cease enrichment of uranium at its other nuclear facilities.”

Also on Sunday Iran unveiled the Karrar (striker), its first long-range, unmanned bomber. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on state TV that “The jet, as well as being an ambassador of death for the enemies of humanity, has a main message of peace and friendship.”

He claimed an Israeli attack on Iran’s nukes was unlikely, but if it occurred, “The scope of Iran’s reaction will include the entire earth. We also tell you – the West – that all options are on the table.”

Coming one day after the Bushehr launch, Admadinejad’s words meant “We will continue what we’re doing here, and don’t anyone seriously think of stopping us.”

If anything good came out of these developments, it would be increased understanding in the West of how stark, beyond the sanctions chimera, its choices on Iran really are.