BUSHEHR, Iran – As we were bused from the airport in the southwestern coastal city of Bushehr toward Iran's nuclear power plant, the most noticeable feature was the large number of anti-aircraft guns dotted across the landscape to protect the facility from attack.
It was a rare occasion – after years of delays, Iranian and Russian engineers carried out a series of critical tests at Iran's first nuclear power plant Wednesday. The Iranian authorities offered a group of journalists a guided tour of the facility to showcase the event.
|VIDEO: Iran showcases its nuclear plant to reporter|
The facility – which Iran says will be used to generate electricity – was built by the Russians at a cost of about a billion dollars.
The tests on Wednesday were essentially a dry run, without enriched uranium in the rods, just lead, before full-scale operations are due to begin in the coming months.
"We are very proud. Our power plant is on its way to being ready, despite all the pressure from the West not wanting us to advance," said Mohsen Shirzai, an engineer at the plant who was giving us a guided tour.
The tour itself was sanitized and carefully stage managed, but that was not the point.
The Iranians wanted to send a clear message to the international community: They have made a massive leap forward in their plans to develop nuclear technology, their nuclear plant is in its final stages and in a matter of months Iran will be a nuclear energy-powered country, despite efforts by American, Israel and Europe to curb the program.
'A nuclear Iran'
"The United States should face reality and accept living with a nuclear Iran," said Vice President Gholam Reza Aghazadeh, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.
Aghazadeh went on to say that Iran has increased the number of centrifuges enriching uranium to 6,000, up from 5,000 in November. The move was in defiance of the U.N. Security Council demands that Iran halt all enrichment activities because it is a key process in the development of a nuclear bomb – as well as nuclear energy.
Meantime, the Russian influence was plain to see everywhere at the plant. Dozens of Russian engineers were milling around the facility, teaching and working. Most of the signs in the plant were either in Persian or Russian. The Russians even had their own camp within the site with accommodations and shops selling Russian produce, an area that was closed off to Iranian personnel.
During a joint press conference with the Russians and the Iranians inside the facility I asked Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia's state Rosatom Atomic Corporation, how he could be confident that Iran will not develop a nuclear warhead.
But his Iranian counterpart, Aghazadeh, wouldn't let Kiriyenko answer, saying that he was in a better position to answer that question. In his response, he unsurprisingly towed the government line that Iran has no intention of producing a nuclear warhead.
Point of pride
Signs of progress here at Busher are an enormous source of pride for Iranians. But coupled with Iran launching a satellite into space and reports that it has accumulated large quantities of enriched uranium – they are major causes for concern in the United States and Israel.
Does Iran really have enough uranium to make a nuclear weapon?
One thing is clear – if it doesn't today, it can speed up the process substantially, now that they have mastered these other complicated procedures.