Iran wants role, after all, as nuclear fuel maker for Bushehr reactor

Iran's proposal to jointly produce fuel with Russia for the Bushehr nuclear power plant is bound to raise even more opposition to its nuclear pursuits.

Vahid Salemi/AP/File
Iran has proposed to share the production of nuclear with Russia for its Russian-built Bushehr power plant.

Iran has proposed to share fuel production with Russia for its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant – a move bound to raise even more concerns about Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The power plant, which began receiving fuel Saturday and is set to commence producing power next month, is supposed to be operated under an agreement whereby Moscow supplies the uranium fuel for the plant and takes back all of the plant’s spent fuel for reprocessing in Russia.

Bushehr’s completion was delayed for years, in part because of international qualms over how the plant’s fuel would be managed. International powers including the US dropped their opposition after Russia assured the international community that it would retain control of the fuel.

Iran’s proposal to create a consortium with Russia to jointly manage Bushehr’s fuel cycle is one more development that will almost certainly put Iran’s nuclear program more sharply in the sights of the US Congress. Some lawmakers have already expressed disquiet over the Obama administration’s quiet tolerance of Russia’s fueling of the Bushehr reactor.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington, says firing up Bushehr just as Congress returns in September will add to the alarm in Congress over signs of nuclear proliferation in the Middle East.

Suggesting that some key members of Congress are increasingly questioning expanded US nuclear energy cooperation with countries in the region, Mr. Sokolski foresees legislative efforts as early as September to toughen the provisions under which nuclear cooperative agreements are approved.

Iran's move to have a hand in fuel production is also likely to put its nuclear program atop the international community’s diplomatic agenda this fall.

Iran has indicated that it is interested in returning to multilateral talks on its nuclear program, as well as to more narrowly focused negotiations aimed at securing the fuel needed for an aging research reactor in Tehran.

At the same time, Iran has recently rolled out new domestically produced military hardware – including a surface-to-air missile and an unmanned aircraft –apparently aimed at discouraging talk of eventual military strikes against its nuclear facilities.

Some analysts have interpreted the public rollout of the new defensive systems as a kind of nose-thumbing at recently toughened international sanctions.

“All this activity by the Iranians suggests they sense that they’re getting to a stage in this process that is higher risk, but which at the same time is putting them closer to what they want,” says Alex Vatanka, an Iran scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington.

Among Tehran’s chief aims, he adds, is control of the nuclear cycle, and achieving recognition by Washington of Iran as a major player. An Iranian proposal to jointly produce and manage nuclear fuel with Russia fits within the first priority, although Mr. Vatanka says the Iranians are probably thinking beyond Bushehr to the fueling of other nuclear facilities.

The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, was quoted by Iranian state-run television Wednesday stating that Russia is studying Iran’s proposal for a joint fuel-production effort. The Associated Press cited a Russian official saying the two countries have discussed some cooperative effort for Bushehr, but that any uranium enrichment would occur in Russia.

Iran may be determined to gain control of the nuclear fuel cycle, but it is also eager to retain what bridges it has with the international community and to avoid the level of isolation North Korea now lives under, Iran analysts say. Russia has long been a close commercial partner, and Iran would like to reverse the deterioration in relations suggested by Russia’s decision to go along with tougher international sanctions on Iran in June.

“The Iranians still have high hopes of salvaging their relations with Russia,” says Vatanka, who adds that the Iranians may be testing their limits with Moscow and may pull back if they sense they are going too far.

“They’ve been waiting 15 years to get Bushehr up and running and they know the Russians can toughen their stance," he says, "so I don’t see them taking too big a risk at this point” with their proposal."

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