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Iran's Nuclear Power Plant: Threat or Distraction?

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.