Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Once again on Monday, the U.N. Security Council voted to impose sanctions against Iran in response to its refusal to stop uranium enrichment for its nuclear program. Fourteen of the 15 council members, including Russia and China, voted for the resolution, which adds 13 names to an existing list of five individuals and 12 companies that are subject to asset and travel restrictions. Tehran continues to respond defiantly, with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming that his government has “won” in the nuclear field. And in at least one critical area, he may be right.

Washington has capitulated on a critical security issue: Russia’s troubling role in helping Iran build a light-water “civilian” nuclear reactor at Bushehr. During Monday’s Security Council debate, U.N. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reiterated the position that the Bush administration has adopted in the president’s second term, and that is that the United States now endorses the Bushehr reactor — even though there is good reason to suspect that it functions as a cover for Moscow to provide technical help for Iranian nuclear weapons research and development — a point made five years ago by the Energy Department.

The Bush administration’s position has changed dramatically. Nearly five years ago, DOE did a study of how much plutonium could be extracted from Bushehr: a middle-range estimate would be enough to build approximately 50-60 nuclear weapons, former Undersecretary of State for Nonproliferation John Bolton told The Washington Times yesterday. But Washington and Moscow agreed in 2005 not to make Moscow’s assistance to Bushehr a matter for U.N. sanctions. The administration has bought into the European argument that in order to strengthen the diplomatic case against Iran, the United States had to accept the premise that Iran has the right to go forward with ostensibly civilian nuclear energy programs. Last month, the House Energy and Commerce Committee spotlighted the fact that the White House is supporting an Energy Department budget that includes $4 million for two Russian nuclear institutes that are helping Iran complete the Bushehr reactor.

As Henry Sokolski, a former congressional aide and Defense Department official who closely monitors nuclear proliferation, explains it, U.S. policy regarding outside assistance to Iranian nuclear programs is simply incoherent. Washington opposes all support for Iranian efforts to enrich uranium, but “it is entirely fine for Russia or any other nation to export components and expertise to Iran to complete reactors like to Bushehr — a system that the U.S. used to view as a cover for Iranian nuclear-weapon activities,” he told us.

Washington needs to rethink its policy and the subsidization of the Bushehr facility with taxpayer money.

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