Iran's nuclear power plant: threat or distraction?
A satellite image of the Bushehr plant from September 2010. (GeoEye Satellite Image)
September 16th, 2011
12:54 PM ET

Iran's nuclear power plant: threat or distraction?

From Suzanne Maloney, Brookings Institution, for CNN

EDITOR'S NOTE: Suzanne Maloney is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution where studies Iran, the political economy of the Persian Gulf and Middle East energy policy. She served as an external advisor to the State Department from 2010 to 2011 and was a former U.S. State Department policy advisor during the George W. Bush administration.  She has also counseled private companies on Middle East issues. Maloney recently published a book titled Iran's Long Reach: Iran as a Pivotal State in the Muslim World.

Washington greeted this week's inauguration of Iran's first nuclear power plant with a chorus of concerns about the Iranian threat and the prospects of proliferation across the Middle East. This alarmism is neither unexpected nor unjustified. However in the case of the Bushehr reactor, it is somewhat misdirected.

Bushehr and its tortuous history offer a testament to the past missteps and more recent successes in the long American effort to block Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

The notion of oil-rich Iran opting for nuclear energy predates the 1979 revolution that ousted the country's pro-American monarchy and replaced it with a religious regime with deep animosities toward Washington and many of its neighbors. Bushehr's groundbreaking took place in 1975, and its path to completion has been prolonged by revolutions and war, technical and financial challenges, sanctions and sabotage.

For decades, Bushehr has served as the focal point of American anxieties about Iran's nuclear ambitions. The facility itself was not the primary source of suspicion, since the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty permits power generation and the light-water reactor bears only limited utility for a weapons program. Rather, Bushehr became the symbol of the world's persistent mistrust in the Iranian leadership.

Even at its inception, when U.S.-Iranian friendship was at its apex, Washington viewed the reactor as a stalking horse for the Shah's unsubtle aspirations for nuclear weapons to bolster his regional primacy. Fifteen years later, as major construction resumed in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, Bushehr emerged as a harbinger of the intersection between rogue regimes and nuclear proliferation - a seemingly legal avenue for acquiring or developing illegal weapons.

Based upon the conviction that it represented a cover for an underground weapons program, successive U.S. administrations sought to rally the world against Bushehr. Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration leaned hard on foreign contractors involved with the plant's construction, most especially Russia, which had replaced German firms in building the facility. Hardened by both the experience of 9/11 and the 2002 revelations about Iran's longstanding covert enrichment program, the Bush administration echoed this stance.

Somewhere along the line, however, Washington lost sight of the fact that Bushehr never represented the real threat. Russia will repatriate the spent fuel from the reactor as a hedge against Iranian diversion, and the facility will operate under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards and supervision. This does not suggest that Bushehr is totally proliferation-resistant, but it has always ranked relatively low amongst Iran's array of disturbing activities.

This was reinforced by the 2002 disclosures, which made clear that Tehran sought to master the entire fuel cycle. Although those revelations reinforced the suspicions about Iran's intent, they effectively diminished the relevance of Bushehr. Once they went public with their determined campaign to establish massive indigenous enrichment, Iran's revolutionaries hardly needed a power plant to mask their ambitions.

Bushehr might then have receded as a strategic priority for Washington, were it not for the Bush administration's unwillingness to differentiate between the necessary and the desirable. Throughout its first term - which coincided with the waning of Iran's reform movement - the administration sought an all-encompassing ban on Iranian access to nuclear technology. This approach was neither justified under international law nor supported by U.S. allies, who struggled to craft a nuclear compromise with Tehran over American opposition.

And Washington continued to browbeat Moscow over Bushehr, inflaming U.S.-Russian relations and ensuring the Kremlin's noncooperation on the Iranian nuclear issue.

Its absolutist stance meant that the Bush administration squandered the most promising interval for forestalling an Iranian nuclear weapons capability, a period when international anxieties over Tehran's intentions had climbed sharply, when U.S. capabilities across the Middle East appeared formidable, and when Iranian reformists retained sufficient influence to accept real constraints on the regime's nuclear ambitions, including acceptance of additional IAEA safeguards and a nearly two-year suspension of enrichment activities.

This posture alienated allies and played into the hands of Iran's hardliners, who are all too adept at deploying deep-rooted nationalism and resentment of foreign interference to buttress their hold on power. And it meant that when the Bush administration finally moderated its position, announcing in 2006 its willingness to join the European-led negotiations toward an agreement that facilitated Iranian civilian nuclear activities, Tehran saw the shift as evidence of American weakness and an incentive for an even harder push for the full fuel cycle.

While its history offers a cautionary tale in misplaced priorities, Bushehr also offers a window on what Washington has done right lately.

An extensive early effort by the Obama administration to engage Tehran in negotiations helped persuade reluctant European allies to adopt unprecedented sanctions on trade and investment in Iran's energy sector when those negotiations failed.

Washington has also managed to transform the U.S. relationship with Moscow through an ambitious diplomatic reset, which notably incorporated a tacit acceptance of the Russian commitment to finishing Bushehr. In exchange, Moscow has proven newly accommodating on Iran, showing greater cooperation on sanctions, including its decision to withhold anti-missile systems sales to Tehran.

In that light, Bushehr's official inauguration this week is not a setback for the effort to block Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, but rather a milestone in the hard-fought and necessary struggle against proliferation.


Filed under: Diplomacy • Iran
soundoff (43 Responses)
  1. A Choudhury

    Iran has the right to develop nuclear weapons when it is encircled by hostile forces (USA Israil) that have a proven track record of illegally attacking and destroying other countries and killing hundrens and thousands of its citizens (Iraq Afghanistan, Lebanon, Gaza etc). An Iranian nuclear bomb would negate Israil's and the West's military superiority and would force Israil to come to a peace agreement with the Palestinians. At the moment Israil supported blindly by the biased US government is only interested in stealing more and more palestinian land piece by piece by constructing illegal settlments. They are not interested in PEACE at all. Most ordinary people around the world like me are sick of the west's double standards and wish Iran all the best in their pursuit of nuclear weapons

    January 9, 2012 at 7:32 pm | Reply
  2. iran

    Israel has not signed "NPT" (nuclear non-nroliferation treaty) but Iran has!
    Israel has nuclear weapons, perhaps as many as 400 of them but Iran has no nuclear weapons!
    Iran does not need nuclear weapons!
    iran's nuclear program is not a threat and is peaceful,
    but
    iranian nuclear scientist assassinated in tehran.
    so
    Do you think Iran is a threat to the world peace or Israel?
    the answer is clear ...

    September 21, 2011 at 2:20 am | Reply
  3. RedytempDr

    Anyone who believes that Iran can be trusted needs to watch CNN more often and take some history classes. Iran or I flee...it's what their people do everytime they vote against their governments opinion.

    September 20, 2011 at 5:58 am | Reply
    • Sam

      Anyone who thinks viewing CNN is on a par with history lessons has obviously never studied history.

      September 20, 2011 at 12:01 pm | Reply
    • Jaws7

      In the beginning perhaps Iran did not need nor wish to build nuclear weapons. But events, the war in Iraq and Libya,
      and threats by the US and Israel have made it mandatory for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons. The nuclear club of the
      West has shown their colors. If you are rich in natural resources you need to be in a position to defend them. Iran
      in modern history has been a peaceful country. In 1941 England and Russia invaded Iran to obtain its oil and I have
      no doubt that the US and European countries are looking to steal what they can from Middle Eastern countries.

      November 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm | Reply
  4. Sam

    The writer is naive and misguided if she thinks the American administration ever honestly considered Bushehr as a threat; albeit, that's the view they intended to project. The reality is that presenting Iran as a threat (nuclear or otherwise) has always been a game of smoke and mirrors carefully cultivated to create fear and political instability in the region. When Hillary Clinton goes to Saudi and tells their rulers "You're either with US or with Iran", followed three weeks later by the signing a record breaking defense deal with the US it should tell you something about the real game that's being played. She was issuing an explicit ultimatum of dire consequences, similar to what happened the last time the Gulf states stopped viewing Iran as a danger and cancelled mega billion dollar defense deals with the West. The Industrial military complex wasn't having any of that so we unleashed Saddam on them. They learned their lesson soon enough and reinstated the cancelled contracts...and more, they allowed the US to establish bases on their soil.

    Having said all that, Bushehr is indeed a threat, but not of the nuclear holocaust type. The world economy is collapsing and the West needs to de-soverignize oil-rich states like Iran. The way to that is not through attacking them, but by allowing them to disintigrate from within to a point where they are left with no negotiating power. Look at Libya. The world leaders are lining up for lucrative oil concessions which they will of course pick up for a song! Libya has no negotiating power. Similarly Iran's ageing oil industry is slowly grinding to a halt. All its hard-earned oil revenue is spent on BUYING refined petroleum that it can use for energy. Plants like Bushehr represents the fly in the ointment because they increase Iran's sovereignty by making it less reliant on oil and giving it's economy more spending power. It defers the day when Iran has to give up any notion of nationalized oil and one way or another be forced into granting similar cheap concessions to foreign oil. On the other hand, the longer the Mullah regime stays in power, the more damage they will do to Iran's economy and the country will ultimately descend into civil chaos, much more horrific than what you see in Libya. It will be the Republican Guard against the Iranian Army. The aftermath won't be pretty for Iranians but it will be a bonanza for the West who will take their pickings from the ruins of a desovereignized Iran who can't call any shots and has to agree to any deal that's on the table.

    But keep on believing the simplistic articles by these think-tanks whose sole job is to perpetuate the myths and create their own "distractions" from the real goals of the US and the West in the Middle East. However, this time, it's going to be much more complicated and something tells me it's going to blow up in their faces in a way they never imagined.

    September 19, 2011 at 10:11 pm | Reply
  5. LibsAlwaysLie

    OF COURSE THEY ARE A THREAT YOU IDIOTS AT COMMUNIST NEWS NETWORK!!!! OK a country that has exported terrorism, is probably the NUMBER ONE terrorist threat in the mideast run by religious fanatical nutjobs that has vowed the destruction of Israel and the destruction or conversion of America as well as shutting down the straights of Hormuz eg the Gulf from all shipping traffic they have supported terrorist groups that have killed Americans and they kidnap and extort so your point at civility is based on what Obama idiocy ?

    September 19, 2011 at 8:01 am | Reply
  6. R Andreas Kraemer

    There is no business case for nuclear power anywhere in the world. Without subsidies, privileges, and liability caps or waivers not one nuclear plant would run to day, no new ones would be built, and all existing ones would be turned off. (Just try to insure a plant on the commercial market, and find out that the risks are such that nuclear power plants are not insurable.) The US and the EU should admit their errors concerning nuclear power and proliferation, calling them "costly mistakes", commit to investing in renewable energies and smart grids, phase out nuclear power, initiate negotiations to amend the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Statute of the IAEA, and thus, in the interest of reducing the high security policy price of nuclear power, change the context for dealing with governments with aggressive nuclear programs such as Iran, North Korea or Pakistan.
    For details see http://ecologic.eu/3303 or http://ecologic.eu/download/vortrag/2010/RAK_NuclearGPPI_100305.pdf

    September 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm | Reply
    • alanmirs

      What makes it ridicules perhaps is not the substance of the article but coerce countries under constant treat of attacks, being intimidated for having influence in there own territories, and yet bullying groups are spending tax payers funds to arm themselves with more advance generation warheads, and missiles to convey, wasting time, fund, and effort, to reassure some privileged affiliates life

      September 18, 2011 at 4:24 pm | Reply
      • LibsAlwaysLie

        Ever hear of Iran Iraq war? And for the first of the Reagan years we were shooting down their aircraft and patrol boats nto because they were making nice you idiot........Bottom line they have supported financially and with weapons terrorists and those killing Americans Nazi German was pretty well liked until they started attacking people.......Iran they are building a bomb are you even for real? Of course they are a real and present dange a real threat, Go worship PinocchiObama and drink some more koolaid...And you idiot Israel was attacked in first strike how many times? Is that your definitiion of starting a war? You are attacked by enemies bent on extermination but you somehow are the villian? You really are an idiot? Get some more koolaid

        September 19, 2011 at 8:06 am |
      • alanmirs

        Reply to LibsAlwaysLie
        One unaware of self lack of knowledge
        Remains with dense ignorance for ever

        September 20, 2011 at 1:20 am |
    • Phil in Oregon

      Yeah, nuclear weapons in the hands of maniacs like Ahmadinejad are just a 'distraction' . It's not like mu slims ever use explosives to worship their god or make political statements or get the world's attention or just to waste a bunch of pesky women and children or....

      September 18, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Reply
      • alanmirs

        Lets be honest we are and have been at war since I remember!
        Israel has attacked many countries times over
        I have not heard of Iran attacking any nation, have you?

        September 19, 2011 at 6:08 am |
  7. baiyun

    Ahmedinejad is insane and shouldn't be allowed nuclear weapons.

    >hurr durr nuclear power
    No convinced.

    September 18, 2011 at 9:08 am | Reply
    • alanmirs

      Ask yourself do you remember a time we haven't been at war somewhere out side of our territory? Is there any justification for our aggression in Iraq and Afghanistan?
      It is a well known fact that Taliban and al-Qaida are the CIA's inventions

      September 19, 2011 at 6:12 am | Reply
    • alanmirs

      He is not planning to acquire one, don't be fooled by propaganda machines

      September 20, 2011 at 1:11 am | Reply
  8. Ziggy

    Iran is a signatory to the NPT, therefore has all the right in the world to conduct a nuclear energy program, including uranium enrichment. Iran does not have to answer to the USA and its cronies regarding this. The Americans have no legal standing in what Iran does or does not do.

    The UN sanctions against Iran are all illegal. The UN does not have any power or authority to stop Iran conducting a legal activity under international treaty or law, or to even punish Iran for doing this.

    It is high time that the Americans simply minded their own business and left Iran to its own business. Iran's nuclear program is strictly between Iran and the IAEA. Neither the USA, nor the UN are mentioned in the NPT and thus have no legal standing in demanding anything from Iran.

    This is nothing more than a legal matter. As long as Iran is a signatory to the NPT, it has the INALIENABLE RIGHT to a nuclear program, including uranium enrchment – that's what the NPT states unequivocally. If you don't like this, go and look up INALIENABLE in the dictionary – in the context of Iran it means that NOBODY has the right to demand that Iran cease its nuclear program, sign any additional protocols or do anything else.

    September 18, 2011 at 1:45 am | Reply
  9. Captian obvious

    This Reactor and the new underground location will be glassed and or earthquake bombed no doubt, its only a matter of time and politics

    September 18, 2011 at 12:39 am | Reply
  10. Kiumars

    There are 192 countries in the world today, 53 of them are Muslim Majority countries (with over 1.6 billion Muslims in them, almost 20% of the world population). There are also 432 nuclear power plants in 30 counties in the world today but how many of them are in the 53 Muslim countries (that makes almost 20% of the world population)?
    Only 4 power plants, 3 mini power plants (300 MW) in Pakistan and one 1000MW plant in Iran.
    There are 104 nuclear power plants (almost 25% of the total) in the USA that makes only 5% of the population of the planet.

    Food for thoughts?
    Crusade is still going on.

    September 17, 2011 at 12:52 am | Reply
    • roach18

      The difference is the U.S. doesn't desire the destruction of entire nations as Iran does with Israel.

      September 17, 2011 at 8:20 pm | Reply
      • alanmirs

        You know very well this slogan is a made up motto
        To emigrate one seeks for a better standard of life and safer environments and yet the most settlers in Israel come from the western countries with the opportunity for a better standard of life and safer environment, there for it seems that the settlers are either castoffs from their community seeking satisfaction of their aggression or ambitious politicians aiming for position by deception

        September 18, 2011 at 9:09 am |
      • A Choudhury

        No the difference is the US ihas a track record of acting outside international law invading other countries and committing horrendous war crimes Iran doesn't

        January 9, 2012 at 7:38 pm |
    • LibsAlwaysLie

      Difference is the non muslim ones are sane friendly overall and do not spend all their money in biggotry tribal favoritism and support of extremism.....

      September 19, 2011 at 8:11 am | Reply
      • alanmirs

        The group terrorists are in fact freedom fighters and the friendly government gets your support and tax money to terrorize other nations around the world read more

        September 20, 2011 at 1:29 am |
  11. bostoncreme

    Why can Iran not have a right to have as many nukes as it wants? Constant threat from the US and Israel of military strikes on their facilities on the false propaganda that Iran wants to wipe out Israel. If Iran supports terrorist against Israel so did the US against Soviet, and best friend an ally Pakistan against India. The US does not have any moral right about weapons and aggression based on its own track record.

    September 16, 2011 at 11:27 pm | Reply
    • roach18

      It is less about a moral right and more about self preservation and the preservation of our allies in the region.

      September 17, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Reply
      • alanmirs

        You mean the poppet dictators?

        September 18, 2011 at 9:14 am |
      • alanmirs

        You mean the puppet rulers?

        September 20, 2011 at 12:58 am |
  12. sxs31

    Look at the persevereance, determination, endurance, tolerence, sacrifice, pride, intelligence, and capabilities of Iran, a nation under enormous and non-stop political, economical, and military threat, 10 year of imposed war supported by the US, France, and England, and numerous illegal economic sanctions, still emeged victoriously and complted this reactor after over nearly 30 years of hostilities. A courageous nation such as Iran can not be underesimated in any regard. Today, there is not a regional coflict that can be resolved without Iran’s participation. And the fact of the matter is that, the West and the US in particular can not stand not having the imperialistic influence once enjoyed in the middele east. They lost their popet dictators, the Shah of Iran, Anvar Sadat and Mobarak of Egypt, and losing more one after the other. Iran rulers are not taking oders form the US presidents or English prime ministers any longer. I say, Iran, more power to you, you have every right to having a peaceful nuclear energy program.

    September 16, 2011 at 10:41 pm | Reply
    • SHAZAM57

      Keep dreaming and hallucinating, just like your president AN . If it was not for the oil money we would so much worst than Afghanistan , and after it is all gone we will be . Because we made no effort to stabilize our economy when we had the chance . The current government of Iran is a big bully , that's why it shouldn't have access to nuclear power.

      September 17, 2011 at 2:26 am | Reply
      • alanmirs

        We American public have been trained to believe inhumane act in our country is illegal and there for taboo but the same act to other nations by our government are legal and just!
        The Taliban's interpretations of the faith which indicates prevention of women writing to their lovers they should not be educated and learn to write! Is identical to our expressions of Iran's acquiring the knowledge of making the bomb!
        As Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, for standing up to the West and saying that Iran’s oil belonged to the Iranian people was disliked by the western powers and was toppled by CIA, any other person defy orders from Washington, D. C. And stand up to the west for the Iranian nation's privileges is detested by the west, In the literature and poetry of the territory one finds out that Yemen, Bokhara, Samarkand, Baghdad, and many other cities in the region with thousands of miles apart seems to be as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago with the deference that the Persian literature was written a thousand years ago
        It is also notable that despite the English language and literature, Persian language is the same as when the literature was written centuries before
        It should not be hard to comprehend that from the early age, the native feel intimacy with each other and sense attachments
        Perceptive of these facts one should recognize Iranians are not the intruder in the region and they have cultural indestructible bond together and since Empires do not exist any more friendship brings influence and Iran's cultural influence could serve US purposes
        Zionist regime is a fascist entity and could not be democratic

        September 18, 2011 at 9:43 am |
    • Georgia Hull

      What world have you been living in? You make it sound like this Iranian leader is a fine upstanding world citizen. I guess you missed the times when the good people of Iran stood up to protest hateful policies and got brutally attacked by their own government. Watch some You Tube buddy. Find out the truth.

      September 17, 2011 at 11:37 am | Reply
      • alanmirs

        You mean the green revolution, or purple one?

        September 18, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
  13. mainstream

    Iran has every right to a nuclear power program, including the production and stockpiling of nuclear weapons, just like us. Then maybe we will back off their oil, make Isreal sign peace with the palestenians, and our boys can come home. Then maybe we can keep our nose outta everyones business and start feeding ourselves. I hope they test one soon! just saying!

    September 16, 2011 at 8:37 pm | Reply
    • DrSCJ

      Hey Mr Mainstream, where do you live? What makes you think why Iran wants a nuclear power when they have said that they will use nuclear missles to totally destroy Isreal:-( This is a really bad choice and I think that Isreal should take out their nuclear reactor. And why do you think that if Iran had nuclear missiles would call for Isreal to have peace talks with the Paliestenians when the Palestenings won't talk about peace no matter what Isreal does? Rethink what your talking about man.

      September 17, 2011 at 6:01 am | Reply
      • alanmirs

        Prejudice
        This is a translation of much Persian cultural poetry
        One who is aware of self knowledge?
        Fame of one's honor reaches the universe
        One unaware of self knowledge
        Should be awakened from one's deep sleep
        One who is aware of self lack of knowledge?
        Eventually reaches one's honorable goal
        One unaware of self lack of knowledge
        Remains with dense ignorance for ever

        September 18, 2011 at 9:57 am |
    • roach18

      And I sincerenly hope the U.S. and/or Israel turn Iranian nuclear facility sites into wastelands. Just sayin!

      September 17, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  14. mejazzbo

    Distraction! As wacky and unstable as our government behaves who are we to say who should and who shouldn't run a nuclear power plant. Having said that, I believe nuclear is too volatile a source of energy to be a source of power for anyone.

    September 16, 2011 at 6:47 pm | Reply
    • roach18

      Would you give someone a gun if they told you they were going to use it to kill their neighbor?... And yet somehow you think you are on the right side of morality here. Amaizing.

      September 17, 2011 at 8:25 pm | Reply
      • alanmirs

        Iranians are intelligent nations they know one or two warhead is no competition for… and waste of time, funds, and effort especially when it could never be used! There for they have no such plan
        Having the peaceful nuclear energy hence having the knowledge of building the bomb takes away the importance of possession and monopoly, there for helps the destruction of such weapons Which is the west's concern
        The reason Iran’s nuclear program has become so controversial, has nothing to do with nuclear nonproliferation, any more than the war on Iraq had anything to do with weapons of mass destruction or terrorism. The problem with Iran is that it is too independent, too willing to defy orders from Washington, D. C. The U.S. used to support Iran’s nuclear program, when the country was under the Shah’s regime. The U.S. installed the Shah in 1953 after the CIA coup that overthrew the democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq for nationalizing Iran’s oil industry, for standing up to the West and saying that Iran’s oil belonged to the Iranian people.

        September 18, 2011 at 10:17 am |
  15. DrSCJ

    Does this mean that it's time to DUCK and COVER? LOL

    September 16, 2011 at 6:39 pm | Reply

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