News that Russia will load nuclear fuel rods into an Iranian reactor has touched off a countdown to a point of no return, a deadline by which Israel would have to launch an attack on Iran's Bushehr reactor before it becomes effectively "immune" to any assault, says former Bush administration U.N. Ambassador John R. Bolton.
Once the fuel rods are loaded, Bolton told Fox News on Friday afternoon, "it makes it essentially immune from attack by Israel. Because once the rods are in the reactor an attack on the reactor risks spreading radiation in the air, and perhaps into the water of the Persian Gulf."
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin declared in March that Russia would start the Bushehr reactor this summer. But the announcement from a spokesman for Russia's state atomic agency to Reuters Friday sent international diplomats scrambling to head off a crisis.
The story immediately became front-page news in Israel, which has laid precise plans to carry out an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities while going along with President Obama's plans to use international sanctions and diplomatic persuasion to convince Iran's clerics not to go nuclear.
Bolton made it clear that it is widely assumed that any Israeli attack on the Bushehr reactor must take place before the reactor is loaded with fuel rods.
"If they're going to do it that's the window that they have," Bolton declared. "Otherwise as I said before, once the rods are in the reactor, if you attack the reactor you're going to open it up and radiation will escape at least into the atmosphere and possibly into the waters of the Persian Gulf.
"So most people think that neither Israel nor the United States, come to that, would attack the reactor after it's been fueled."
Bolton cited the 1981 Israeli attack on Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor outside Baghdad and the September 2007 Israeli attack on a North Korean reactor being built in Syria. Both of those strikes came before fuel rods were loaded into those reactors.
"So if it's going to happen in Bushehr it has to happen before the fuel rods go in," Bolton said.
The conversation that touched off the de facto deadline for Israeli military action was a telephone conversation with wire services involving Sergei Novikov, a spokesman for Rosatom, the Russian Energy State Nuclear Corp.
Novikov said: "The fuel will be loaded on Aug 21. This is the start of the physical launch” of the reactor.
"From that moment the Bushehr plant will be officially considered a nuclear-energy installation," Novikov said, adding that the head of Rosatom, Sergei Kiriyenko, will visit Bushehr Aug. 21 to conduct a ceremony for the event.
According to Bolton, once the reactor is operational, it is only a matter of time before it begins producing plutonium that could be used in a nuclear weapon.
"And in the normal operation of this reactor, in just a fairly short period of time, you could get substantial amounts of plutonium to use as nuclear weapons," Bolton told Fox.
Russia, which is operating under a $1 billion contract with Iran, has spent more than a decade building the reactor. If Russia moves forward with its plan to fuel the reactor, it could be seen as a major setback to the Obama administration's strategy of engaging Russian leaders in order to win their cooperation.
"The U.S. urged them not to send the Iranian's fuel rods," Bolton said. "They did that. The Obama administration has urged them not to insert the fuel rods in the reactors, but as they've just announced that will begin next week. What that does over time is help Iran get another route to nuclear weapons through the plutonium they could reprocess out of the spent fuel rods."
The developments mean Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu soon may face a stark choice: Attack the Bushehr reactor in the next 8 days, or allow it to become operational despite the certainty it would greatly enhance Iran's ability to create nuclear weapons.
Russian leaders have said the Bushehr reactor project is being closely monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN's nuclear watchdog group. According to Iran's ISNA news agency, IAEA inspectors will be on hand to observe the fuel-rod loading process that is now scheduled to begin Aug. 21.
According to Russian officials, Iran has promised in writing to send all spent fuel rods from Bushehr back to Russia for reprocessing, to ensure they cannot be used for nuclear weapons.
Bolton said the reactor has been "a hole" in American foreign policy for over a decade.
The failure to demand it be shut down began in the Bush years, he said, and continues with the Obama administration "under what I believe is the mistaken theory that Iran is entitled to the peaceful use of nuclear energy."
"I don't think Iran is entitled to that, or I don't think we ought to allow it to happen, because they're manifestly violating any number of obligations under the non-proliferation treaty not to seek nuclear weapons. But this has been a hole in American policy for some number of years, and Iran and Russia are obviously exploiting it," Bolton said.
Russia’s move would put Iran "in a much better position overall," he said, adding, "I think this is a very delicate point, as I say, it closes off to the Israelis one possible target for pre-emptive military action.
U.N. sanctions against Iran, he said, "have not had and will not have any material effect on Iran's push to have deliverable nuclear weapons."
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