While the U.N. Security Council prepares new sanctions, Iranian negotiators were in Moscow this week, trying to defuse a feud with Bushehr's contractor.
Atomstroyexport, the state-run Russian nuclear export firm, says Tehran is behind on payments for the $1 billion facility. Iran says Russia is slowing progress on its first nuclear plant as part of international pressure.
"Russia does not want another war in the Middle East," said Cliff Kupchan, director of Europe & Eurasia for the business risk analyst Eurasia Group. "They have lots of multiple and contradictory interests in Iran, from wanting to really corner the Iranian civilian nuclear market...substantial conventional arms relationships, substantial interest in coordinating (natural) gas exports."
Russia has limited U.N. sanctions, but "they are willing to do what they can bilaterally to send a message that enough is enough," Kupchan said.
While Russia wants to ensure Iran's nuclear program remains on an internationally accepted course, both for Bushehr specifically and Iran's economy as a whole, "the Iranians care much more about obtaining an indigenous fuel cycle than they do about Bushehr," Kupchan said.
Atomstroyexport officials are to travel to Tehran to continue negotiations. The company will still build Bushehr, work it says has been slowed by lack of payment. Fuel for the plan won't be delivered this month as scheduled; it has been delayed until an unspecified time when Atomstroyexport deems Bushehr technologically ready to accept it, the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reports. Under contract terms, Russia would also retrieve the fuel once it was used, eliminating proliferation concerns. The plant won't come online in September either.
Tehran says its nuclear program is purely for energy purposes, aimed at giving it the capability to be entirely self-sufficient. It has signed onto international agreements that allow it to proceed, though much of Iran's program was operating stealthily until 2002, causing the international community to question compliance with the pacts.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said earlier this month that though inspectors haven't found Iran using its nuclear program for bombs, Tehran is still too secretive about the program as a whole.
"Quite a few uncertainties still remain about experiments, procurements and other activities relevant to our understanding of the scope and nature of Iran's program," ElBaradei said in a statement to the IAEA Board of Governors. "This renders the Agency unable to provide the required assurance about the peaceful nature of Iran's nuclear program."
The U.S. military can locate only a few dozen of the unknown facilities that make up Iran's nuclear program. They are all targets in an attack, as is Iran's military structure and possibly oil facilities.
The impact on Iran's nuclear program, spread out and buried to keep it safe, depends on how advanced it is at the time of the attack.
"It is inconceivable that they would not have prepared for such an eventuality," said Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The question is not could a military strike stop Iran's program, but could it delay it and delay it enough to make a strike worthwhile."
"Anything that forces (Iran) to change gears could have an effect on when their nuclear program comes to fruition," Wolfsthal said. "But at the same time, I could see a scenario where you could bomb, Iran restarts their program, and moves ahead much more quickly, because they no longer have to fear international public reaction. It might in the end accelerate Iran's nuclear program."
Beyond the bombs, chemicals from the nuclear program being attacked would add to the death toll. "You would have local contamination but you wouldn't have a radioactive release," Wolfsthal said. "You wouldn't have anything like a Chernobyl."
"Anybody who's likely to be killed by the bomb is likely to be affected by the gaseous cloud," he said, adding "a small criticality" is possible, "a small release of radiation when uranium gets together in an uncontrolled way," though not on the scale of a nuclear bomb exploding.
Bushehr isn't guaranteed a target, since it is being built by Russia to provide electricity and has little application for weapons unless nuclear fuel was diverted from it, though a hit could be an expensive step back for Iran.
"It becomes on the target list when there's fuel there," said Kupchan, "and it becomes an active target when Iran doesn't send the fuel back to Russia. Then it's a serious target."
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(This is the second of a two-part series looking at the effects of an attack on Iran. Part 1 explored how the global oil market would respond.)