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Informed Comment

Bolton was Contradicted by Bush on Iran’s Bushehr Reactor

Former US ambassador and perennial angry old crank John Bolton is so upset about the possibility that Iran's Bushehr nuclear reactor will soon go live that he says Israel has a window of only 8 days to attack it and destroy it. (After a reactor is already working, bombing it would turn it into a dirty bomb and harm large numbers of civilians, which even Bolton isn't yet in favor of).

But Bolton's former boss, George W. Bush, endorsed the Russian reactor deal with Iran in 2007:

Bush noted Russia's announcement that it would ship nuclear fuel to Iran's first atomic power station, the unfinished Bushehr plant, and said such deliveries further reduced Tehran's need to enrich uranium.

"If that's the case, if the Russians are willing to do that - which I support - then the Iranians do not need to learn how to enrich. If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there's no need for them to learn how to enrich," he said.

Bush supported the deal because many safeguards had been built in to prevent the reactors being used to create weapons. And because those safeguards were entirely practical, undermining the Iranian arguments for their need to enrich uranium themselves to fuel such reactors.

Moreover, the reactor is being actively inspected by the International Atomic Energy Agency, which continues to certify that no nuclear fuel is being diverted by Iran to weapons purposes.

And the Russians, who have been working on this reactor since the mid-1990s, have put in safeguards to prevent it from being used to produce a nuclear weapon. First, they have insisted on a light water reactor.

One of the ways to create a nuclear warhead is to take the spent fuel from a nuclear reactor and reprocess it into plutonium of weapons quality. But it is much harder to do this with light water reactors than with heavy water ones, as Daniel Engber of Slate explains:

Light-water reactors are designed for commercial use and can run for years at a time on a single batch of fuel. ("Light water" refers to ordinary H2O; "heavy water" has a higher percentage of deuterium atoms, i.e. hydrogen atoms with an extra neutron.) That long burn fills out the plutonium by-product with other isotopes that make it less useful for nuclear weapons. If you shut down a light-water reactor early-after a few months, for example-you'd waste a huge amount of money. . . Furthermore, it would be very easy to tell when the Iranians or North Koreans shut down their light-water reactors. To extract the fuel rods, you have to lift off a giant lid at the top of the reactor and take them out all at once. Weapons inspectors love this feature because it requires a large-scale operation that's almost impossible to conceal.

So the reactor is being regularly inspected by the UN, and is a light water reactor which is very difficult if not impossible to use for the production of weapons grade plutonium. But there is more. Russia is providing the nuclear fuel for these reactors and then taking back the spent fuel, so that Iran will not even have the ruined light-water-reactor-produced plutonium, which even if they did have it could not be used to make a bomb.

People going ballistic over the Bushehr reactor are perhaps remembering the 1981 Israeli attack on the French-made OSIRAK reactor in Baghdad. But that was a piece of counter-productive theater anyway. The French had insisted on constructing a light water reactor, and on putting in safeguards against its being used for weapons construction. The Israeli attack therefore did not forestall a weapons program; the reactor would have been almost impossible to use for that purpose. After the Israeli attack, though, Saddam Hussein launched a crash program to enrich uranium through magnetatrons, an effort that appears to have failed or to have been a very long-term proposition. It was the Israeli strike that convinced the Baath regime to carry out a crash program of nuclear weapons advances that only Baghdad's defeat in the Gulf War revealed. The Israelis would have been better off leaving the innocuous OSIRAK alone; as it was they provoked an Iraqi crash nuclear weapons program that might have ultimately borne fruit had it not been for Saddam's rash and brutal invasion of Kuwait.

So, there is no point in attacking Bushehr and the attack on OSIRAK backfired big time. Bolton and others on the American Right are playing on people's ignorance in this warmongering.

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Juan Cole

Juan Cole

Juan Cole teaches Middle Eastern and South Asian history at the University of Michigan. His new book, The New Arabs: How the Millennial Generation Is Changing the Middle East (Simon and Schuster), will officially be published July 1st. He is also the author of Engaging the Muslim World and Napoleon's Egypt: Invading the Middle East (both Palgrave Macmillan). He has appeared widely on television, radio and on op-ed pages as a commentator on Middle East affairs, and has a regular column at He has written, edited, or translated 14 books and has authored 60 journal articles. His weblog on the contemporary Middle East is Informed Comment.

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