Monday, December 17, 2007
The news that Russia has delivered a first batch of nuclear fuel to the Iranian reactor at Bushehr is significant more for what it says about the state of play on the third round of UN sanctions than for any impact it has on Iran's potential weapons capacity. Previous announcements put the timing of the reactor going operational at six months following the fuel delivery. The fuel remains under IAEA jurisdiction, and Iran has signed agreements to return the spent fuel rods to Russia. So the only way for this to change the threat level is if the Iranians go completely berserk, kick the IAEA out of the country and start reneging on their deal with their major protector on the UN Security Council. And even then, there will be plenty of time to organize some sort of multi-lateral intervention.
On the other hand, the Russians' willingness to ship the fuel suggests that in the aftermath of the NIE report, they are significantly downgrading their willingness to consider the Iranian nuclear program a multi-lateral security threat. It also provides an element of legitimacy to the Iranian government at a time when its bargaining position with the EU has become more intransigent. The Russian foreign ministry also stated that the delivery eliminates any actual need for an Iranian domestic enrichment capacity, but that hasn't stopped the Iranians from declaring their adamance about continuing the program.
It might be true that the NIE has provided more time to resolve the issue through negotiations, as the German Foreign Minister suggested. It might also be true that the negotiations won't achieve anything. But the clock is definitely still running and so far I haven't really come across any convincing arguments to stop worrying about this.
Update: The NY Times adds some interesting details that I should have caught but didn't. First, in justifying the need to continue its domestic enrichment program, Iran made reference to a second nuclear reactor under construction. Second, they claimed that the second reactor would necessitate 50,000 enrichment centrifuges as opposed to the 3,000 currently online. Now there's already a good deal of skepticism about the efficiency of Iran's existing centrifuge cascades, and I don't even know whether Iran is capable of putting 50,000 of them online. But if they did, that would seriously shorten the timeline of when they'd be able to enrich enough uranium for a nuclear weapon. In other words, kiss all that time the NIE supposedly gave us to calmly resolve this standoff goodbye. You can bet Dick Cheney is thanking the Good Lord for Ahmadinejad in his prayers tonight.