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Watching Bushehr

According to a news report, General Petraeus warned Congress yesterday that Israel might preemptively attack Iran. Petraeus also failed to say that the U.S. would act to restrain Israel. Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said yesterday that an Israeli attack is unlikely at the moment, based on his tame assessment of Iran’s nuclear timeline.

As Shahar Ilan notes in his Ha’aretz dispatch, the two statements seem to contradict one another, especially given Israel’s more pessimistic assessment of Iran’s progress. The fact is, quite aside from putting together a device and testing a bomb, the timeline is largely determined by other factors — including, possibly, the progress at Bushehr’s nuclear reactor. Though clearly built for civilian nuclear energy, Bushehr is supplied by Russian fuel that is supposed to be returned to Russia after use (before it could be reprocessed into Plutonium), and can serve other purposes as well.

Re-purposing Bushehr would only take the political will to face the consequences of turning the site into a reprocessing plant. Once this happened, Israel would have to attack before the reactor was active. Given that, both Gates and Petraeus may be right: Iran is still at least a year away from a bomb. And Israel will attack preemptively sooner than one would expect, because Iran’s finish line, from Israel’s point of view, is sooner than Gates thinks.


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