Secret Iranian Enrichment Facility Revealed

Peter Crail

Iran has been constructing a second uranium-enrichment facility in secret, the leaders of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States announced during a Sept. 25 press briefing. In a statement delivered on behalf of the three countries and Germany, President Barack Obama said “the size and configuration of this facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program.”

The four countries indicated that they, along with China and Russia, would still move forward with an Oct. 1 meeting in Geneva agreed earlier this month and that, at that meeting, Iran “must cooperate fully and comprehensively with the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] to take concrete steps to create confidence and transparency in its nuclear program.” They also called on the IAEA to immediately investigate the facility, located on a military base near the Iranian holy city of Qom, and report to the agency’s Board of Governors.

British, French, and U.S. officials briefed the IAEA, as well as China and Russia, on the facility earlier during the week.

IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire said in a Sept. 25 press statement that Iran provided a letter to the agency Sept. 21 indicating that it was constructing another pilot enrichment plant in the country, which would enrich uranium up to 5 percent. Iran has been operating a pilot-scale enrichment facility at Natanz since 2003.

Uranium is generally enriched to low levels if the material is to be used as fuel in nuclear reactors. The explosive cores of nuclear weapons generally use uranium enriched to 90 percent and higher.

Vidricaire also said that “Iran assured the Agency in the letter that ‘Further complementary information will be provided in an appropriate and due time.’”

Senior U.S. officials said during a Sept. 25 background briefing that “Iran learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised,” leading Iran to reveal the site to the IAEA. The officials said that Iran’s notification to the agency led the three governments to provide more detailed information about the facility and the support facilities that were producing equipment for it. Otherwise, the United States and its allies intended to disclose information about the facility “early in any dialogue process” with Iran, one of the officials said, according to a transcript of the briefing.

Gathering Information for “Several Years”

According to the senior administration officials, the U.S. intelligence community, working with allied governments, had been aware of the Qom facility “for the past several years.” They said, however, that evidence providing “high confidence” that the facility was intended for uranium enrichment was not obtained until earlier this year.

During the background briefing, the officials said that the U.S. intelligence community assesses that the Qom facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuges. That is “not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint,” one of the officials said. The intelligence community judged that the facility would be able to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for “a bomb or two” per year, the official said.

Iran’s commercial-scale enrichment facility at Natanz is designed to hold about 50,000 centrifuges, machines that spin at high speeds to separate the fissile isotope uranium-235 from other uranium isotopes in the enrichment process. The U.S. officials said that because the Natanz facility is currently under international monitoring that would easily detect an attempt to produce weapons-grade uranium, Tehran likely wanted to use another facility, such as the one discovered at Qom, for that purpose.

It is not yet clear what type of centrifuges the Qom facility is designed to hold. The Natanz facility is currently operating with a 1970s-vintage centrifuge design, called the P-1, which Iran acquired from the illicit network run by former Pakistani nuclear official Abdul Qadeer Khan. However, Iran has been carrying out tests of newer generations of centrifuges based on the more advanced P-2 design Iran also obtained through the Khan network. (See ACT, November 2007.) The P-2 centrifuge can enrich uranium about two and a half times faster than the P-1.

Tehran claims that the previously hidden facility was intended to preserve Iran’s nuclear capabilities in the event of an attack on the country’s nuclear facilities. Ali Akbar Salehi, head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told reporters Sept. 26, “Given the threats we face every day, we are required to take the necessary precautionary measures, spread our facilities and protect our human assets.” Salehi said that Iran would allow the IAEA to inspect the facility, but did not give a time frame.

Now that the facility is no longer secret, Washington assesses that it will be even more difficult for Iran to pursue a nuclear weapons capability. At the Sept. 25 background briefing, a senior U.S. official said that “because of international pressure to allow the IAEA to inspect this facility and place it under safeguards, it sets their nuclear weapons program back.”

Even so, the United States indicated in an official Sept. 25 background question-and-answer document regarding the Qom facility that the U.S. intelligence community still judges that Iran suspended its nuclear weapons program in 2003. That judgment was first made public in a 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), which defined such a weapons program as “weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” (See ACT, January/February 2008.) The NIE also judged “with moderate confidence” that Iran’s nuclear weapons program remained halted “as of mid-2007.”

The United States maintains that the judgments in that NIE still stand. The question-and-answer document stated that, “in and of itself the information on this facility does not contradict our 2007 assessment of Iran’s nuclear program.”

U.S. intelligence officials stood by the 2007 NIE findings in the months prior to the disclosure of the Qom facility as well. In May 18 remarks to the Pacific Council on International Policy, CIA Director Leon Panetta repeated the finding that Iran halted its weaponization program in 2003. He added that “the judgment of the intelligence community is that Iran at a minimum is keeping open the option to develop deliverable nuclear weapons.”

Panetta expanded on that view in a Sept. 18 interview with Voice of America. He said the U.S. intelligence community believes that although Iran is “proceeding to develop a nuclear capability in terms of power and low-grade uranium, there is still very much a debate going on within Iran as to whether or not they ought to proceed further.”

A senior U.S. official said Sept. 25 that the Qom facility is still under construction and that Iran is likely “a few months, perhaps more” from installing all of its centrifuges and operating them.

Iran Claims Facility Construction Legal

Responding to claims that it likely intended to use the facility to enrich uranium for weapons in secret, Iran claimed that it was not required to notify the IAEA about the facility for several months.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said, “According to the IAEA rules, countries must inform the Agency six months ahead of the gas injection in their uranium enrichment plants.”

“We have done it 18 months ahead, and this should be appreciated, not condemned,” he added.

Iran told the IAEA in March 2007 that it was reinterpreting a subsidiary arrangement to its safeguards agreement to revert to an older version, which requires states to provide design information regarding new nuclear facilities six months prior to the introduction of nuclear material. (See ACT, April 2007.) Under the newer version of that subsidiary arrangement, called Code 3.1, states are obligated to provide such information “as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction [of a nuclear facility] has been taken.”

Iran agreed to implement the newer version of that arrangement in February 2003.

According to the agency, however, Iran is not allowed to reinterpret such an agreement unilaterally. A March 2009 statement by the IAEA legal adviser said that such provisions “can only be amended or suspended with the agreement of both parties to them,” referencing Iran and the IAEA as the parties to such arrangements.

U.S. officials maintain that regardless of Iran’s reinterpretation of its arrangements with the IAEA, it is still a violation of Tehran’s safeguards obligations. A senior U.S. official noted Sept. 25 that Iran began construction of the facility before it pulled out of implementing the newer safeguards arrangement.

World Powers Still to Meet With Iran

Revelations regarding the Qom facility came just a week before the scheduled Oct. 1 meeting with Iran. The discussions would mark the first formal meeting between the Obama administration and Tehran. Washington will be joined in the talks by the other four permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, and the United Kingdom) and Germany.

The six countries agreed earlier this year that they would review their approach to Iran if it did not come to the negotiating table in September. (See ACT, September 2009.)

The two sides were previously at odds regarding the topics for discussion during the October meeting. Although the six countries intended to focus on the nuclear issue, Iranian officials said that the nuclear issue was “finished” and would not be subject to negotiation.

A proposal for discussions that Iran submitted to representatives of the six countries Sept. 9 did not contain any reference to Iran’s nuclear program. The five-page document reiterated several of the issues raised in a similar proposal Iran circulated last year, including suggestions on regional security cooperation and addressing global economic concerns.

Unlike the 2008 proposal, however, the recent document did not have a section on nuclear issues. Instead, it broadly addressed the role of the IAEA and the universality of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) as part of an overall discussion on “international issues.”

Since the disclosure of the Qom facility, the six countries have insisted even more forcefully that Iran not only address the nuclear issue, but also take steps to increase transparency regarding all of its nuclear activities.

During the Sept. 25 press briefing, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown insisted that if Iran did not adhere to its international commitments regarding its nuclear program, they would push for more stringent sanctions. Sarkozy said that Iran would have until December to change course.

The United States and its allies appear to have recently received increased support from Russia for potential additional sanctions on Iran. Although Moscow had previously indicated that it did not see additional sanctions as useful, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev seemed more receptive to such measures during a Sept. 23 joint press conference after bilateral talks with Obama.

Russia’s position is clear: Sanctions rarely lead to productive results, but in some cases, sanctions are inevitable,” he said.

Questions Raised on IAEA Information

The IAEA’s preparations to inspect the newly revealed facility come after allegations that the agency is withholding assessments of Iranian activities relevant to a nuclear weapons program.

In an Aug. 30 statement, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said that an Aug. 28 report on the agency’s inspections in Iran “does not reflect all the information known to the IAEA regarding Iran’s efforts to continue to pursue its military program.”

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner echoed that claim Sept. 3, stating that information in agency annexes suggests that there is a military aspect to Iran’s nuclear program. He said such annexes should be released as soon as possible.

Similarly, the Associated Press reported Sept. 17 that IAEA officials have compiled a confidential report that concludes that Iran has enough expertise to make a nuclear warhead. According to the Associated Press story, the document “is based on intelligence provided by member states, the agency’s own investigations, and input from outside nuclear arms experts.”

The IAEA has repeatedly denied the existence of such a document, claiming most recently in a Sept. 17 press statement that it “has no concrete proof that there is or has been a nuclear weapon programme in Iran.” In the statement, the agency said that accusations that it is withholding information “are politically motivated and baseless,” explaining that all of the information that it has received and assessed has been included in the reports to its Board of Governors.

The Aug. 28 report reiterated the status of the IAEA’s investigations into a series of “alleged studies” by Iran relating to the development of a nuclear weapon. The agency first outlined its concerns regarding the suspected weaponization activities in a February 2008 report and provided more detailed information in an annex to a report issued in May 2008. (See ACT, June 2008.) The suspected activities include mating a ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead and carrying out explosive tests of a type used to detonate a nuclear weapon. In the IAEA’s reference to the alleged studies, there was no indication of a clandestine enrichment facility of the kind disclosed at Qom.

The IAEA received information regarding the alleged studies from Western intelligence agencies beginning in 2005. (See ACT, March 2008.) The Aug. 28 report said this information appears to be generally consistent and derived from multiple sources over different periods of time.

The report indicated, however, that the agency has a limited ability to authenticate and substantiate all of the intelligence information it has received on Iran’s suspected weaponization efforts. It stated that “the information is being critically assessed, in accordance with the agency’s practices,” by corroborating it with information that it receives and its own findings.

According to a diplomat who attended a Sept. 9 board meeting, IAEA Director-General Mohamed ElBaradei said that the issue of the alleged studies is not a matter of analyzing their implications, but determining their accuracy and authenticity. If authentic, he said, “there is a high probability that nuclear weaponization activities have taken place,” adding, “but I should underline ‘if’ three times.”