Saudi and Kuwait officials have warned the US that if Iran activates its first nuclear reactor at Bushehr in May as planned, there is a good chance it will blow up and the entire Gulf region suffer a nuclear disaster on the scale of the misfortune at Japan's Fukushima and expose millions to radiation contamination.
This issue was urgently raised in recent Saudi-US talks – first on April 4 with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and again Monday, April 11, with the National Security Adviser to the US President Tom Donilon.
The two high-level US official visits to Riyadh in six days attest to the fierce discord between Saudi King Abdullah and the administration – not just over Iran and its nuclear activity but the entire gamut of US Middle East policy.
When he met the defense secretary, the king took Gates to task, charging that the White House ignored Saudi intelligence evidence passed to the CIA that Tehran and Hizballah were actively fomenting the unrest in Bahrain with a view to igniting parallel disturbances in the eastern Saudi oil regions among the two million Shiites living there. Abdullah complained bluntly that President Obama refuses to budge from his course of engagement with Iran no matter what evidence is put before him.
The king declared angrily that the lax American attitude toward the Islamic Republic's nuclear aspirations places the very existence of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf nations in peril.
Washington had twisted Saudi arms to refrain from challenging the Bushehr nuclear plant when preparations for its activation were completed last year, despite its harmful potential for the region. (debkafile reported last August that similar pressure was applied to Israel.) Even the Iranians, Abdullah told Gates, were scared to switch it on out of concern for their own people.
It was the first time the Saudi monarch linked the Iranian plant with the Japanese nuclear calamity. Tuesday, April 12, Japan raised its severity to maximum seven the same as Chernobyl.
Four months ago, on Jan. 26, Moscow acted outside the rules of conventional diplomacy when the Russian ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin publicly demanded a NATO investigation into the effects of the Stuxnet malworm on the Bushehr reactor. He repeated a previous warning to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that, "The virus attack on a Russian-built nuclear reactor in Iran could trigger a nuclear disaster on the scale of Chernobyl."
debkafile's intelligence and Russian sources report that Moscow's concerns focused on the discovery of the unexplained entry of small pieces of metal into the cooling system. This told them that the Iranians had not managed to stop Stuxnet or its impact on the reactor's control systems and there was no guarantee that more malfunctions capable of causing the plant to blow up were not in store.
These warnings were initially heeded: Russian-Iranian preparations to active the reactor were suspended and it was emptied of nuclear fuel.
But then Friday, April 8, the fuel was reloaded. The next day, the head of Iran's Nuclear Energy Commission Fereydoun Abbasi said: "Even before the earthquake and nuclear contamination crisis in Japan, Iran had accepted the Russian experts' proposal to reconsider the plan to load fuel into the core of the Bushehr power plant's reactor."
Iran had never before referred to the Fukushima in relation to Bushehr.
Our sources add that the Abbasi statement clearly held Moscow responsible for any potential nuclear disaster that beset the Iranian facility. It also confirmed the Saudi claim. Riyadh has accordingly demanded that Washington act without delay and by all means possible to prevent Bushehr from going on line next month..
Such US action would be diametrically opposed to the Obama administration's Iran policy at present. However, failure to meet the Saudi demand would deepen the acute crisis in Saudi-US relations and mistrust sparked by the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – with effect on other related issues such as Yemen and even Pakistan.