Jeffrey LewisQom Enrichment Facility Roundup

There has been a lot of back-and-forth on the blog, especially in the comments, about the ongoing revelation of Iran’s enrichment facility near Qom. A couple of points:

1. Iran has unequivocally violated its safeguards obligations

James Acton laid this out in exquisite detail. The short version is this:

US officials said they new about the facility for “several years” and that construction began “before” March 2007. If ISIS is right about the identification, satellite images suggest tunneling began prior to March 25, 2005.

At the time Iran began construction of the facility, therefore, it was obligated to notify the IAEA “as soon as the decision to construct, to authorize construction or to modify has been taken.”

It was only in in March 2007 — after Iran began construction on its undeclared facility — that Iran attempted to unilaterally alter the Subsidiary Arrangement to its safeguards agreement. Such an alteration requires consent of both parties and the IAEA has been screaming to high-heaven that it does not consent as I blogged at the time.

Iran also seems to have tried a novel argument — that it never submitted the subsidiary arrangement to its parliament, the Majlis. But, as James points out, “Iran—like every other state—modifies its Subsidiary Arrangements regularly, without asking for parliamentary ratification.”

Any way you look at it, Tehran is in violation of its safeguards agreement. Furthermore, the manner in which the facility was constructed and then revealed, clearly suggests that Iran had no intention to declare the facility — until it was clear that the jig was up.

2. The location of the facility itself is the matter of some debate.

The United State only noted that the facility is “near the city of Qom” — although subsequent press reporting notes that the facility is about 100 miles from Tehran.

ISIS has zeroed in on a facility; their guess is as good as mine. It is worth noting that we shouldn’t expect any overt nuclear signatures in the images — the intelligence community monitored the site because it was suspicious, but didn’t conclude it was nuclear until they received some other information. So, externally, the site will just look suspicious.

Unless Washington, Tehran, Vienna, or the like confirm “that’s it,” we’re just guessing. It is fun, though.

3. Where do we go from here?

I suspect the Iranians will allow the IAEA to inspect the facility, but they will continue to resist the Additional Protocol, which would give the IAEA considerably more access to other suspect sites, and Code 3.1 of their Subsidiary Arrangement.

They will probably start digging another hole in the ground someplace else — assuming they weren’t digging multiple facilities. Welcome to enrichment whack-a-mole where, if you miss, Iran gets the bomb.


  1. blowback (History)

    No, Iran has not unequivocally violated its safeguards obligations! There is on this website a statement by the legal adviser to the IAEA that covers this point.

    While Iran’s actions are inconsistent with its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement, this should be seen in proper context. Given the fact that Article 42 [of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement] is broadly phrased and that the old version of Code 3.1 had been accepted as complying with the requirements of this Article for some 22 years prior to the Board’s decision in 1992 to modify it as indicated above, it is difficult to conclude that providing information in accordance with the earlier formulation in itself constitutes non-compliance with, or a breach of, the [NPT-related] Safeguards Agreement as such.

    So it looks like the legal adviser to the IAEA would accept, maybe unwillingly, that Iran’s notification of this new enrichment plant is not non-compliant with Iran’s obligations.

    Where is the evidence that US officials have known about this facility for “several years”? All we have seen so far is a statement from a White House official which given the past history of the White House is worth very little. If they have known about it for “several years”, why haven’t the White House released its location and satellite imagery of it. So far, all have have seen are commercial images from an NGO. Could it be that the IAEA is sticking to its obligation to keep member’s information confidential and the White House has no idea of the location of the site that the Iranians have declared?

  2. Greenish

    Regarding #2, more specifics this morning:

    “Hassan Qashqavi, the Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman, said Monday that the second enrichment facility was in a village called Fordo, about 115 miles south of Tehran, and 60 miles from Natanz, the site of Iran’s known enrichment plant, The Associated Press reported. That would place it — as United States officials have said — close to the holy city of Qum.”


  3. Captain Canuck

    GeoEye has an image from 7 June 2004 (taken by QuickBird 02) that shows the tunnel entrances in place even then.

    Catalog ID: 1010010002FF1500

  4. Captain Canuck

    The other site (west of the airbase) appears to have been well under construction in July of 2003.

    GeoEye catalog ID: 1010010002094E00

  5. Gridlock (History)

    OT (ish);

    “Observation Satellites for Arms Control: Some Implications and Policy Choices”

  6. Pedro

    Seriously, the new facility is very visible to any intelligence agency using satellite imagery.

    Although there are dozens of tunnel facilities of that kind throughout Iran, this one sticks out for several reasons.

    All post-Shah tunnel facilities in Iran are used for the ballistic missile program.
    They have very clear characteristics like high bay garages e.g.

    But this one resembles no known facility, that’s why it would be very poor if any capable intelligence agency would have missed it. More so if it is heavily protected by AAA and SAM systems.

    Given the means the CIA has, it would be probably able to identify this unique and highly suspicious facility, via satellites, as a nuclear program related one.

    So please, the finding was not due to good HUMINT or a lucky find, missing it would be a shame.

    That’s why I highly doubt that the Iranian leadership thought that this facility would remain hidden, at least after they had heard about Google Earth.
    The last point is that everyone can be sure that there is not a second facility of that kind the CIA doesn’t know about.

  7. blowback (History)

    If this report in the NY Times is correct, then it can’t be either site identified by ISIS as an arc 115 miles from Tehran runs well to the south of Qum. From Google Maps, there is a village called Fardu which is very close to 115 miles from Tehran and 60 miles from the town of Natanz

  8. anon

    “A satellite image provided by DigitalGlobe and GeoEye shows a well-fortified facility built into a mountain about 20 miles northeast of Qom, with ventilation shafts and a nearby surface-to-air missile site, according to defense consultancy IHS Jane’s, which did the analysis of the imagery. The image was taken in September.

    However, Iran’s Foreign Ministry has given a different location, saying Monday it was near the village of Fordo, which is about 30 miles south of Qom.”

  9. blowback (History)

    I am beginning to wonder if the two sites identified by ISIS are “MacGuffins”. Looking on Digital Globe’s website , Fardu has been the object of a number of strip images but I can’t see any sign of the cluster of specifically ordered images that one usually sees around a site of interest. At the default settings, there are 2 Worldview2 images from late 2007 and early 2008 and three Quickbird from January, February and May of this year. Nothing more recent.

    BTW, Fordo does not show up in DG’s gazetteer, but Fardu does and is almost exactly 60 miles from the Natanz nuclear site and 105 miles from Tehran as defined by Google Maps.

  10. Mohammad (History)

    A pro-government website (“Sanyehnews”) has quoted some unnamed IAEO and security officials as releasing some more details about the Fordo enrichment complex. You can read it in Persian here (needless to say, the included photo is from the Bushehr plant and unrelated)

  11. blowback (History)

    Looking at the low-resolution imagery available on preview from DigitalGlobe (I don’t have some rich benefactor like ISIS), I can’t see any large construction sites around Fardu such as those identified by ISIS to the north of Qum, so I am thinking that maybe Iran set a trap for the Western IC. Have the Iranians actually conformed fully with the Additional Protocol and told the IAEA of their intentions before they even started work on the real site? The US, which almost certainly knows about the sites north of Qum as they are too big to miss, jumps to a false conclusion with its claims of knowing about “the site for years” when the Iranians haven’t even turned the first sod at the real site and the only people who know about the real site are a handful of Iranians and a few employees of the IAEA. Oops!

  12. Captain Canuck

    Posted by AP about an hour ago – Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi “gave the location of the site as about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of capital Tehran on the road leading to Qom. That is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Qom. He dismissed a statement by Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday that the facility was near the village of Fordo, which is about 30 miles south of Qom.”

    His other comments are interesting too.

  13. Allen Thomson (History)

    Fordo/Fordu/Fardu seems to have been a mistake:

    [Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who also heads the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran] gave the location of the site as about 60 miles (100 kilometers) south of capital Tehran on the road leading to Qom. That is about 20 miles (30 kilometers) north of Qom. He dismissed a statement by Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman on Monday that the facility was near the village of Fordo, which is about 30 miles south of Qom.

  14. Captain Canuck

    This article (posted this morning based on reporting within Iran) proposes a different argument for the Qom facility not representing non-compliance: that its construction began before the modified 3.1 terms came into effect.

    Some other interesting tidbits in this article too.

  15. Andreas Persbo

    Blowback, Hass and others. You may find ElBaradei’s latest statement quite devastating:

  16. kme

    The salient point is not actually whether Iran is legally in breach of the transparency rules. The point is what this implies about the purpose of the site, which (as it is all about Iranian intentions), comes down to what rules the Iranians had publically said they were following at the time the decision to construct was taken.

    If, at any point during the time that Iran had made it known publically that it considered itself bound by the tighter rules, the decision to construct the site had already been taken, then Iran was hiding this site – a deception which implies ill-intent.

    On the other hand, if the decision to construct had only been taken after Iran had already announced that it was going back to the old transparency rules, then Iran has behaved in accordance with how it told everyone it would behave – so there’s no deception.

    We might well disagree that they were legally allowed to go back to the old disclosure rules, but the relevant action then was the announcement that they’d do that, not subsequent actions that logically follow from that announcement.

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