Mark HibbsNooks and Crannies in Iran

Hans Blix said a lot of things while Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 16 years, and one of them was this:

“We cannot inspect every nook and cranny in a large country.”

Before running the IAEA, Blix was a politician, a career civil servant, and a foreign minister, and in public sometimes he could be, well, more than a little cagey. On occasion Blix fiercely defended his agency’s prerogatives and reputation, but there were also moments when he felt that he shouldn’t commit the IAEA to take avoidable risks or promise to do things that couldn’t be delivered. In recent years, with the IAEA prominently extending its reach into Iran, and with significant changes in the making concerning how the IAEA implements safeguards, Blix’s views about the IAEA’s role are still informed by concern about the agency’s risk and reputation.

I was in the room in 1992 when Blix made the above remark, and I recall that my initial reaction was that it allowed him to dodge probing questions about the IAEA’s responsibility for making sure that a state’s nuclear activities were all accounted for, as the first Gulf War a year before had revealed that the IAEA missed a billion-dollar nuclear weapons program in Iraq.

But my first impression of  his remark, informed by Blix’ cleverness, was shortsighted. As is also the case today, back in 1992 the IAEA needed to think about its risk and reputation. Many people then expected Blix to chase down every Iraqi machine tool, mop up every speck of South Africa’s enriched uranium, and get cracking on safeguarding heretofore undeclared nuclear activities in Argentina and Brazil–all at a time when Blix’ paymasters were closing in on and reducing the IAEA’s budget. Blix could not overcommit himself and his agency–and he therefore chose his words wisely.

Enter the PMOI

I can’t remember when I last recalled Blix’ 21-year-old response to a question about the IAEA’s capability to penetrate into hidden domaines of a country’s nuclear program, but shortly after I saw this announcement by the People’s Mojaheddin Organization of Iran early this morning, it resurfaced. The PMOI report was backed up by documentation asserting that Iran is building a secret nuclear installation at a place called Damavand, north of Tehran.

What to make of that claim? Reuters asked me this morning. I told them the PMOI should not be simply brushed off for two reasons: 1.) because the organization has a mixed track record which includes revealing some correct information, and 2.) because in light of Iran’s own failure to declare its activities, “it has been widely assumed that there is likely some Iranian nuclear infrastructure which is secret, undeclared, and which may be underground.”  Reuters published that.

But I also told Reuters this, which didn’t get into print and which in my view was more germane to the questions raised by PMOI’s material:

Given that Iran has just elected a new president from whom we anticipate initiatives, it’s hard to believe that Iran would provoke the powers by equipping a new underground site with centrifuges. It’s more likely that intelligence agencies have known about this site for some time and that information is being leaked now to smoke out that site in advance.

Why did I draw that preliminary conclusion?

In 2010, Iran announced it would build ten enrichment plants. At the time this claim was widely dismissed by many observers as hyperbole, given the views of some people, including Olli Heinonen, that Iran was likely runing low on embargoed materials it needed to build more centrifuges.  The IAEA  requested that Iran provide design information for any additional enrichment plants it intended to build. So far, Iran has not provided the IAEA any information indicating that it plans to build more enrichment facilities than the ones the IAEA knows about.

So is Iran building or intending to build a new underground enrichment plant now, at the site that PMOI is fingering? I have no facts, and no knowledge. I doubt it. But if so, or if such a facility was ever planned, it’s probably too late.

There’s also Iran’s presidential election and Hassan Rouhani’s victory to consider. With Iran poised to reap the benefits in the form of further delays in sanctions or other negative actions, news that Iran had a third clandestine centrifuge plant would be fatal to efforts by Iran to demonstrate that its failure to make known the Fordo plant before September 2009 was a one-off mistake (actually, a two-off mistake, since back in 2002 Iran’ had likewise failed to declare its Natanz plant). Were U.S.-Iran diplomacy to take off after Rouhani’s election, revelation that Iran was preparing a new underground nuclear site would be poison.

The PMOI has some new wrinkes–including the allegation that Mohsen Fakhrizideh is in charge of a company constructing the facility on behalf of Iran’s Defense Ministry–but the PMOI does not in fact identify any specific nuclear purpose for the site which it claims hosts a “secret nuclear facility.”

More likely is the prospect that PMOI may be obtaining information from people connected to foreign intelligence agencies who are busy trying to uncover Iranian nuclear-related facility construction.  Their hunt for secret sites in Iran got revved up long before Iran told us of its 10-enrichment plant ambitions. Even before that I was told that Western governments had located about a dozen potential sites where a centrifuge plant in the future might be bunkered or erected underground. Intelligence agencies and their governments could therefore well have an interest in signaling to Iran now that they know about sites which Iran has developed and which it could dedicate to future uranium enrichment–whether clandestine or declared.

For the powers negotiating with Iran, were Iran to declare to the IAEA that it intended to build a third enrichment plant, that would make more difficult a future deal intending to limit Iran’s future uranium activity to a single installation in Iran. Iran’s adversaries would therefore want to nip any third plant in the bud. The powers also don’t want to see Iran reprocessing spent fuel from its heavy water reactor in Arak. Removing any undeclared infrastructure which may host such future activities–as Israel did in destroying the installation at Al-Kibar in Syria in 2007– was not an option. Lifting the veil would have been an option.


Back to Blix

During interactions with the IAEA after early 2009, Iran changed its narrative about the intended purpose of the Fordo facility. That made the IAEA suspicious that Iran had intended the facility to be undeclared before it was spooked by foreign intelligence agencies. The IAEA reported to its Board of Governors in November 2010:

Iran’s failure to inform the Agency, in accordance with the provisions of the revised Code 3.1, of the decision to construct, or to authorize construction of, a new facility as soon as such a decision is taken, and to submit information as the design is developed, is inconsistent with its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement. Moreover, Iran’s delay in submitting such information to the Agency does not contribute to the building of confidence. While the Agency has confirmed that the plant corresponds to the design information provided by Iran, Iran’s explanation about the purpose of the facility and the chronology of its design and construction requires further clarification.

Could the IAEA inject itself into Iran to find out whether Fordo, or any other project, was intended to be declared or not? In 2009, before he vacated the Director-Generalship of the IAEA to Yukiya Amano, Mohamed ElBaradei had this to say:

It isn’t realistic for an international organization to have an intelligence branch…. Having our own spies going around the world is contrary to our nature. We do our work above ground; we don’t work underground. So I continue to preach transparency.

That brings us full circle back to what ElBaradei’s predecessor said 17 years before. The IAEA is only as robust and capable as its member states permit. In 1992, the IAEA had no resources to commit itself to look under every rock for signs of clandestine nuclear activity. Today, with or without the State-Level Approach for safeguards, the IAEA is in the same situation. Then as now, the IAEA can’t cover all the territory. “We cannot inspect every nook and cranny in a large country.” 

So maybe that’s why the information about the Damavand site got leaked today.

Under Code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements to Iran’s safeguards agreement, which the IAEA says is in force, Iran must notify the IAEA of a nuclear facility at the time that it decides to construct it. It would be difficult for the IAEA to independently establish when Iran would have decided to build any specific installation. In practical terms Iran might therefore take advantage of the situation to build as many underground tunnels as it wants without providing the IAEA any information about their intended purpose. Were Iran however to introduce specific equipment or material into such a site, betraying a nuclear purpose–and were that action to be exposed–then Iran would have a serious international public relations problem on its hands.

Unless of course Iran declared its intention to construct a nuclear facility there first. The leak of information to PMOI may mean that, if Iran had ever contemplated Damavand hosting a nuclear installation, that option is now foreclosed.







  1. yousaf (History)


    the statement, “it has been widely assumed that there is likely some Iranian nuclear infrastructure which is secret, undeclared, and which may be underground.” may perhaps be correct.

    You refer above to the modified Code 3.1.

    Iran, however — right or wrong — holds itself to the original code 3.1:

    “Code 3.1 of the original (as specified in the 1976) Safeguards Agreement stipulated that Iran must declare to the IAEA the existence of any nuclear facility no later than 180 days before introducing any nuclear material into the facility.”

    So Iran may think it alright to build nuclear infrastructure and not tell anyone until 180 days before they intend to load it with nuclear material.

    • mark (History)


      Iran, to follow your plea, can think what it wants. Here are the facts in the case.

    • yousaf (History)

      It’s not my plea — I am just saying where _may_ Iran stand on the issue, generally.

      Again, I don’t know if there is any new infrastructure or not.

      As Sahimi’s article I linked to above suggests, the desired reversion to the old code 3.1 was “in retaliation” for the IAEA sending Iran’s file to the UNSC — Iran notified the “IAEA in March 2007 that it would no longer voluntarily observe the modified Code 3.1, and would revert to the original Code 3.1, which only required a 180-day notification.”

      Iran may or may not be justified in so doing — it is beyond my knowledge of the law.

      I’m simply trying to bring to the fore the existence of this issue.

      I am not taking sides on the Code 3.1 business as I do not know the relevant law very well.

    • Cyrus (History)

      Sorry mark but James Acton is not God of NPT Law, and you can’t just dismiss Iran’s assertiosn by referencing his article.

      What’s the problem with what Blix said? He’s right — the role of the IAEA is not to look under rocks. I think you fundamentally misunderstand/misportray the role of the IAEA. It is NOT an investigative agency. It is NOT the “enforcer” of the NPT. Within the context of the NPT, the role of the IAEA is limited to that of an accountant of declared nuclear material.

      Iran is not bound by the REVISED 3.1 code, it argues, and that’s a legitimate point of dispute, not proof of weapons programs. Furthermore the facilities that the PMOI “exposed” in 2003 were not secret. In fact Iran’s entire enrichment program was well known — they had declared their completion of the uranium conversion facility in 2000, and had even invited visitor to their uranium mines in 1994, nevermind annoucning plans to start enrichment on national radio in the early 1980s.

    • Johnboy (History)

      Second try to respond to mark: James Acton’s “facts” are clearly in error, precisely because it is founded upon a pair of mutually-exclusive assumptions.

      Assumption 1: The IAEA modified Code 3.1 document imposes a legally-binding obligation upon Iran i.e. to all intents and purposes it can be considered to be “a treaty” between Iran and the IAEA

      Assumption 2: IAEA modified Code 3.1 documents do not require ratification to come into force, merely an exchange of documents between the IAEA and Iran.

      Helloooooooooo???? Think about it… think about it….

      Even a moment’s thought should tell you that *both* assumptions can not be true, precisely because legally-binding documents (i.e. “treaties”) require ratification in the Iranian legislature.

      Acton is completely correct that IAEA modified Code 3.1 documents involve the mere exchange of documents.

      He is therefore completely wrong to claim that they are legally-binding upon Iran.

      Or, put another way, unlike the NPT or the APs a IAEA modified Code 3.1 document represent nothing more than an “understanding” or “undertaking” or “gentlemen’s agreement” between Iran and the IAEA.

      As such then Iran is at liberty to back out of them at any time they so desire.

  2. mark (History)

    Damavand appears to be well-known in cyberspace for reasons unrelated to Iran’s nuclear or missile activities. Here’s a view of the terrain from the ground:

    • Nick (History)

      That terrain looks nothing like what has been shown for Battlefield 3; check out this link:

      If the MEK information is correct, which is usually not, this could be a decoy, like playing three card monte with tunnels. The upside is that it keeps a lot of people employed on both sides: constructions and intelligence.

  3. Rene (History)

    “Unless of course Iran declared its intention to construct a nuclear facility there first.” It’s very hard for me to believe that if Iran declared such an intention she could avoid backlash from Western politicians and media. My guess is that Iran would face backbreaking pressure from the moment she makes such a declaration. In general, in the nuclear field it seems to me that Iran is always choosing between bad and worse.

  4. Anthony (History)

    PMOI, MKO or whatever they are called these days have a long sought agenda and that is to overthrow the regime. They are a cult with revenge like qualities, they will do anything to get back at the Iranians.

    This makes it the perfect candidate for foreign intelligence agencies (hint, Israel).

  5. Alex (History)

    Also, PMOI’s usefulness to western sponsors reduces dramatically in the event of a deal. It is in their interest to leak any information they may have yet to pass on, and indeed any information they have passed on but which is not yet public, in order to sabotage such a deal and retain sponsorship.

  6. Jack (History)

    I think, time has come for Iran to leave NPT. International treaties are agreed on to secure national rights, sovereignty, interests and avoid unnecessary friction with other states. As is clear, Iran has got nothing under NPT except pain, misery and ridicule.

    Once Iran leaves NPT and becomes a nuclear weapon state, then Iranians can look forward for a better and more secured future. Right now it is slavery down to the bottom. And this slavery is never going to end.

    • shaheen (History)


      This has to be one of the funniest comments ever posted on ACW.

      Just in case it was a serious comment, two points that you may ponder: (1) Iran’s economic situation is primarily the result of extraordinary bad management, recognized by Iranian economists well before real sanctions began to bite. (2) If you think that Iran will escape unhurt from the NPT after having lied about its activities for at least 20 years, well, it’s a bet I would not do if I was Tehran. (Incidentally, leaving the NPT would mean that those who suspected Iran to work towards a bomb were correct, no?)

  7. Gregory Matteson (History)

    I’d been waiting for someone else to notice: This is the only news report I easily turned up that directly quotes the ‘Damavand’ report from MEK. This report says the alledged nuclear tunnels are near Damavand Town, not the mountain. The mountain is a ‘dormant’ volcano, with known activity; not a place you’d want to build underground facilities (volcanic gasses, hydrothermal activity, to say the least). And yes, MEK is a scary, explicity communistic cult, widely implicated in the assassination of civilian Iranian ‘Nuclear Scientists’. It has been reported that MEK’s removal from US terrorist organization designation, which most countries have found strange, was a reward for co-operation with Israeli and US intelligence.