According to former UN Ambassador John Bolton (and other experts), Israel has just three days to strike Iran's nuclear power plant at Bushehr. That timeline is based on Tehran's plans to begin fueling the plant this weekend--with Russian assistance. Once the fuel rods are in the reactor, any strike against Bushehr would result in radioactive fallout across civilian areas--a risk that Israeli political and military officials might be unwilling to take.
Earlier this week, Mr. Bolton suggested that Tel Aviv had an eight-day window for striking Bushehr. But he revised his schedule in an interview with Israeli radio, noting that Iran and Russia would begin fueling of the plant would begin on Friday--earlier than originally planned.
"It has always been optimal that military force is used before the fuel rods are inserted," Bolton explained. "That's what Israel did in Osirak in 1991, and when they attacked the North Korean reactor built in Syria." Israel bombed the Osirak nuclear reactor in Iraq in 1981, and a Syrian reactor in 2007.
However Bolton didn't see any indication that an Israeli strike was going to happen. "Obviously if Israel were going to do something it wouldn't exactly be advertising it. But time is short."
Bolton said that it would be "a much more dangerous world" if Iran were to gain nuclear capability. "That's why I think it's so critical. It won't stop with Iran. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey, perhaps other states as well."
Start-up of the Bushehr plant represents another risk as well. Plutonium can be extracted from the spent fuel rods, giving Tehran another option for developing nuclear weapons. Until now, Iran's research efforts have concentrated on the highly enriched uranium (HEU) option which (typically) yields less powerful bombs.
Still, the onset of fueling operations at Bushehr does not guarantee Tehran a plutonium weapon, at least over the short term. It took North Korea decades to master the recovery process and extract enough plutonium for its small arsenal of weapons. While Iran almost certainly has access to that expertise, it would still take several years for Teharn's scientists and engineers to build their first plutonium-based bomb.
Meanwhile, the Iranians are continuing to enrich uranium, a process that represents the shortest track to a nuclear weapons capability. That's the main reason that potential Israeli (and U.S.) attack plans still focus on facilities at Esfahan and Natanz, which are closely tied to the HEU effort. There is also concern about the heavy water plant at Arak, which will support the plutonium track when it opens in 3-4 years. Many analysts believe the complexes at Esfahan, Natanz and Arak would be the primary targets in any strike scenario, with Bushehr assuming a lower priority. Still, fueling of the reactor would complicate any long-term attack plans, given the radioactivity that would be released if the complex is bombed.
Meanwhile, Tehran is trying to bolster defenses around its nuclear sites. Senior officials have promised a "display" of Iranian military might next week, but their armed forces still rely heavily on aging U.S. equipment, purchased by the Shah. On Tuesday, one of their F-4 Phantoms crashed less than five miles from Bushehr, and the Iranians are demanding the transfer of a small number of F-14s that were never delivered decades ago.
Tehran received 60 Tomcats from the U.S. before the Islamic Revolution, but four decades later, only a handful of those jets are still operational. Obviously, Washington has no plans to deliver the rest of those F-14s and even if we did, the aircraft would be coming from the "boneyard," since the Navy retired its last Tomcats a couple of years ago. Iranian demands for the "rest" of the F-14s suggests that it has had little luck in getting advanced Russian jets at requested prices, so they're looking for anything to fill the gap.
The crash of that F-4 also raises questions about the operation of Iran's air defenses. There is a "no-fly" zone around all of Tehran's nuclear complexes, defended by medium and short-range missile and AAA systems. The proximity of the F-4 to the Bushehr reactor suggests it was inside the no-fly zone (or on the edge) at the time it went down. Was the Phantom knocked down by an Iranian SAM or AAA crew? That possibility has not been confirmed, but the Iranian air defense system has a long history of confusion and poor coordination, problems that could be exploited by potential attackers.
Of course, mouting a strike takes political willpower, something that appears to be in short supply in Washington (what a surprise) and even Tel Aviv. Tehran is counting on that trend to continue, as it sprints towards the nuclear finish line.
ADDENDUM: DEBKA (consider the source) is reporting that the Iranian F-4 was shot down by an SA-15 SAM battery defending the Bushehr complex. If that proves accurate, it reaffirms that confusion still permeates Iran's air defense system, and such problems would only intensify during a U.S. or Israeli air strike. The same DEBKA article also claims tha three drones have crashed into the dome of the Bushehr reactor in recent days. One Iranian source said they were launched to test air defenses around the reactor site. Apparently, Iran's SAM crews are much more proficient at shooting down their own, manned fighters than they are at targeting UAVs playing the role of enemy aircraft and cruise missiles.