Thirty-six years after construction began, Iranian and Russian engineers started loading fuel into the Russian-built nuclear power plant in the southern Iranian port city of Bushehr (CNN) over the weekend. Fueling the plant will likely take until early September. While the Bushehr opening spurred nationwide celebrations in Iran (Guardian), as did the announcement of a new armed aerial drone (WSJ), it added to jitters elsewhere about Iran's nuclear agenda. It also revived questions about whether sanctions have failed and whether an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities is imminent (Atlantic), particularly by Israel, which has long said it cannot live with a nuclear Iran.
Though Iran has repeatedly expressed peaceful intentions for Bushehr, its public statements are ambiguous. Iran's nuclear chief touted the plant as a "symbol of Iranian resistance and patience" (AP) in the face of Western pressure, and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki insists Iran's nuclear enrichment program will continue because the government has been asked by the Islamic parliament to produce twenty thousand megawatts (Haaretz). The light-water reactor at Bushehr will produce only one thousand megawatts.
The United States and other countries are concerned that Iran could use secret enrichment activities to service a bomb program. Bushehr itself isn't seen as a proliferation risk (AFP), and the United States has tried to reassure Israel that Iran is at least a year from a "dash" toward a nuclear weapon (NYT). Washington doesn't formally object to Bushehr, but it doesn't want Iran to be rewarded while continuing to defy UN demands to stop uranium enrichment. However, Moscow vows to safeguard the program (NYT), arguing it is essential to ensure Iran cooperates with international efforts to ensure it doesn't try to build a bomb (CSMonitor).
Most experts agree Iran won't be able to use Bushehr for enrichment activities (FP) since Moscow will be removing the spent fuel--which could be used to extract plutonium--and Bushehr will be under the watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted (TIME) that Bushehr "underscores that Iran does not need its own enrichment capability if its intentions, as it states, are for a peaceful nuclear program." On the eve of the Bushehr start-up, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said that Iran is ready to resume talks soon with the UN Security Council (Reuters) over an exchange of enriched uranium, although Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameni said Iran would not talk to the United States unless sanctions and military threats were lifted (TehranTimes).
Iran's actions have inspired new rounds of UN, U.S., and EU sanctions (NYT), as well as debate about whether those sanctions will be effective. Penalties levied by the EU and the United States, which go beyond the UN sanctions, are meeting resistance from China, Russia, India, and Turkey (LAT). The countries have condemned the additional sanctions and moved ahead with trade and investment deals that violate the sanctions or could do so in the future.
The Obama administration argues that the sanctions have brought Iran more economic pain than anticipated (NYT), with slowed gasoline shipments and foreign investments to the country and some banks cutting off dealings with Iran for fear that they'll lose access to the U.S. banking system.
Yet some experts worry about the fraying of the international coalition pressuring Iran due to the new bilateral sanctions. CFR's Meghan O'Sullivan cites this issue and the "difficulty of translating the impact of sanctions into political change in Tehran." She argues that the United States might have to consider military or other options. CFR's Ray Takeyh and others maintain, however, that "only an approach involving direct dialogue and strategic patience" will ultimately be successful.
The Atlantic offers a discussion about a possible Israeli strike on Iran's nuclear facilities http://www.theatlantic.com/debates/israel-iran/
Karim Sadjadpour calls for shifting to a containment policy that helps "expedite political transformation." http://www.cfr.org/publication/22447/containment_policy_for_a_nuclear_iran.html
This report looks at how Iranian nuclearization would affect U.S. policy in the Middle East http://www.cfr.org/publication/22296/nucleararmed_iran.html
This Backgrounder looks at the history and scope of sanctions against Iran.