Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Bad Timing

Iran's nuclear program is in the news again, with Russia finally deciding to deliver the fuel for the idle nuclear reactor at Bushehr, which was built with Russian technology. This action is an inevitable consequence of the recent US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran. But while the timing is unfortunate, since withholding the reactor fuel was part of the international diplomatic pressure on Iran, today's New York Times report is misleading, when it characterizes the Bushehr plant as being "at the center of an international dispute over its nuclear program." If anything, that facility and its fuel represent precisely the kind of nuclear power program that the international community has been encouraging Iran to pursue, in lieu of the indigenous fuel cycle it is developing. That's where the security risk arises, not from an internationally-supervised civilian reactor fueled by Russia.

I'm sure some will see the Administration's comments on this event as making the best of a bad situation, but I think this time the President has it right, to this extent: As he stated, “If the Iranians accept that uranium for a civilian nuclear power plant, then there’s no need for them to learn how to enrich.” However, I also think that Tom Friedman of the Times was correct the other day, when he noted that the timing and wording of the NIE have seriously undermined the global coalition to contain Iran's nuclear ambitions. "The peculiar (obtuse?) way the N.I.E. on Iran was framed has deprived all who favor a negotiated settlement of leverage." At a time when nothing in Washington, DC is taken at face value, those who were anxious to foreclose any possibility of a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities have downplayed the document's description of the very serious risks and uncertainties surrounding the most worrying elements of Iran's nuclear program--uranium enrichment at Natanz and plutonium production from the heavy water reactor at Arak.

While the security implications of all this have become quite muddled, the energy consequences are perhaps even less obvious but no less important. In order for nuclear power to be effective as a strategy to combat climate change, its application can't just be limited to countries that are already part of the nuclear weapons "club", or to developed countries such as Finland that have decided to forgo nuclear weapons. As the climate change roadmap coming out of the Bali conference confirmed, emissions from developing countries must be included in a global solution, with appropriate technical and financial assistance from the developed world. That means that among other things, we must be able to transfer nuclear technology--as Russia has done in Iran--without creating a nuclear weapons proliferation nightmare. Iran's opaque and contrary approach to nuclear power elevates the risks of such transfers and simultaneously undermines the international mechanisms for ensuring that nuclear technology will be used for peaceful purposes. It would be impossible for them to follow this path absent the tremendous influence of their hydrocarbon reserves and exports. Those weigh heavily in the cost-benefit analysis for Russia and China, without whose continued cooperation the diplomatic effort to keep Iran from developing a nuclear-weapons capability will ultimately unravel.

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