Commentary Magazine


Why Are We Funding Bushehr?

Yesterday, John Dingell, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, charged that a Department of Energy program is financially supporting two Russian institutes helping to build the Bushehr reactor in Iran, the country’s first nuclear generating station. The Bush administration has worked hard—and unsuccessfully—to stop Bushehr, which could be operating in a few months. “What policy logic justifies DOE funding Russian institutes which are providing nuclear technology to Iran?” Dingell asked in a letter to Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman. “How does this advance our non-proliferation goals?”

Good questions, Mr. Dingell. The program in question, the Initiatives for Proliferation Prevention, was created in 1994 to employ Russian scientists laid off after the end of the Cold War so they wouldn’t work for terrorist organizations or rogue states. Dingell cited two institutes funded by the program, Scientific Research Institute of Measuring Systems and the Federal Scientific and Industrial Center of Nuclear Machine Building.

The Department of Energy, through a spokesman for the National Nuclear Security Administration, denied the charges. “We are confident that none of the projects cited by the House committee, or any of the department’s scientist engagement projects with Russia, support nuclear work in Iran,” the NNSA stated. “In coordination with other U.S. government agencies, we take all measures necessary to ensure that neither money nor technology falls into the hands of countries of concern.”

Unfortunately, these days Washington and Moscow are not concerned about the same countries. We may think that Iran is exceedingly dangerous, but Russians apparently view that country as just another customer wanting to harness the atom for the good of humankind. Russia’s commercial relations with Iran, especially those involving the Bushehr plant, are one reason that Moscow is not willing to back meaningful sanctions in the United Nations Security Council.

There is another principal concern. It does not matter whether American funds are specifically earmarked for Iranian projects at those institutes. There is a problem if our money is going to those institutes for any purpose. Why? Because cash is fungible—any dollar that goes to an institute permits that organization to free up resources to help Iran. Moreover, Russian institutes seem to be thriving these days, so it’s high time to consider whether we should curtail our support of Russian nuclear scientists. “How many other Russian institutes funded by DOE are also performing work on the Iranian nuclear program?” Dingell’s letter asks. At present, we are paying for more than a hundred projects.

As Dingell noted this week, Federal law sanctions U.S. companies that develop Iranian oil. If we sanction our own companies, how can we assist Russian businesses that are hard at work furthering Tehran’s nuclear ambitions?