Jeffrey LewisIran Expands Gchine U Mine

This is a joint post by Jeffrey Lewis, Flynt Leverett, and Hillary Mann Leverett. This post is cross-posted at Flynt and Hillary’s blog, Race for Iran

Bloomberg’s Jonathan Tirone has a story today revealing that Iran has dramatically expanded operations at its Gchine uranium mine. Tirone worked closely with Jeffrey Lewis at the New America Foundation, as well as other nuclear experts, to analyze satellite photographs of the Gchine mine.

We believe that it is important to place this development in a larger context: what does Tirone’s story say about Iran’s nuclear program, and what are its implications for diplomatic efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue? The bottom line is that Iran appears to be developing a significant indigenous source of uranium—a source that, while nowhere near what the Islamic Republic would need to fuel a civil nuclear power program, is relatively large compared to the requirements of a nuclear weapons program. This development provides additional confirmation for the argument that the diplomatic pursuit of “zero enrichment” in Iran is folly. The objective of nuclear diplomacy with Tehran should be to improve the international community’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities.

First, what does this story say about Iran’s nuclear program?

Currently, the Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant (BUP) is Iran’s only indigenous source of uranium yellowcake, processed from uranium ore mined from the Gchine salt plug. Neither the Gchine mine nor the BUP is covered by Iran’s safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). It would be covered under the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Prolfieration Treaty, which Iran has signed but not
ratified — which means that Tehran is not legally bound by the terms of the Additional Protocol.

Although the mine and the BUP have a declared capacity of 21 tons of uranium yellowcake a year, Iran has operated the facility at much lower levels of production. This now appears to be changing. The most striking finding in the satellite photographs, taken in April 2009 and October 2009, is that Iran has dug a much, much larger tailing pond (where leftover ore is dumped after technicians remove the uranium) after having filled the smaller pond dug in 2005. This suggests that Iran is moving toward operating the mine at its stated design capacity.

Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant, April 26, 2009. Credit: DigitalGlobe Inc.

Bandar Abbas Uranium Production Plant, October 3, 2009. Credit: GeoEye Inc.

And that means the Islamic Republic is well on its way toward having a large, indigenously produced and unsafeguarded stockpile of yellowcake that could be converted into uranium hexafluoride and fed into centrifuges at Natanz, Qom, or some other facility we do not yet know about.

Second, what does this story mean for diplomatic efforts to deal with the Iranian nuclear issue?

Some observers have long suspected that Iran originally intended to use the Gchine mine as part of a clandestine nuclear weapons program. Former IAEA Deputy-Director General for Safeguards Pierre Goldschmidt publicly questioned “why the work on the very promising Gchine project was suspended by the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran from 1994 to 2000 to focus on a mush less promising ore deposit at Saghand.” The implication is that the mine was not abandoned, but rather was part of a covert weapons program. U.S. intelligence suspects that Kimia Madaan, the Iranian firm responsible for development of the mine during fallow period in the 1990s, was linked to a covert weaponization program.

All of this, however, is water under the bridge. The Gchine mine is now part of Iran’s declared civil nuclear program. But it has not been under IAEA safeguards since Iran stopped its voluntary compliance with the Additional Protocol, which obligated Tehran to provide basic information about operations at Gchine and allow IAEA inspectors access to the mine.

Yellowcake produced from Gchine must be converted into uranium hexafluoriade at Isfahan before it can be enriched at Natanz or some other site like the recently revealed facility at Qom. However, Iran is now developing a large source of uranium that could be used in covert enrichment facilities that wo do not know about. As a result, focusing on the number of centrifuges installed and running at Natanz is a fool’s errand. For one thing, the Iranians will not agree at this point to give up their indigenous enrichment capability or accept strict quantitative limits on their centrifuge infrastructure. But, even if the Iranians agreed to shut down Natanz, without additional monitoring the international community would not be able to verify the absence of a covert program.

Dealing with those risks would require a comprehensive monitoring arrangement that would safeguard Iran’s nuclear program from the moment that uranium ore came out of the ground at Gchine through the entire fuel cycle. The most feasible way to establish such a monitoring arrangement would start with Iranian ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol—a non-country-specific international instrument that would not single out the Islamic Republic for “special” (and, in Iranian eyes, discriminatory) treatment.

Iranian officials have said that they are open to ratification and implementation of the Additional Protocol, under the right circumstances. Those circumstances almost certainly include a strategic understanding with the United States about Washington’s willingness to accept and live with the Islamic Republic.

Beyond dropping its futile and ultimately counter-productive focus on “zero enrichment,” the Obama Administration needs to incorporate into its approach to the nuclear issue an acute awareness that nuclear diplomacy with Tehran must be embedded in a broader strategic conversation between the United States and the Islamic Republic. Over the long term, the United States and its allies should work with Iran to establish more intrusive monitoring arrangments, in the context of strategic rapprochment between the United States and the Islamic Republic.


  1. Cynic (History)

    Is there any development or revelation that might possibly cause the authors to question their underlying premises – that the international community must allow Iran to have whatever it wants, short of outright weaponization, in exchange for more intrusive monitoring – or will every new development merely be taken as further evidence to bolster that case?

    The argument, as I understand it, rests on two premises – that Iran cannot be persuaded to surrender what it already has, and that an intrusive monitoring arrangement will dissuade, prevent, or delay efforts at producing weapons. The first of these premises would seem to contradict the second. For the past two decades, Iran has relentlessly pursued steps toward weaponization. It has signed agreements as they suited, and broken them when they became inconvenient. It has operated facilities covertly. Why will intrusive monitoring change this?

    This morning, Israel announced that it had intercepted a massive, 60-ton shipment of Iranian arms bound for Hezbollah. This, in the middle of the IAEA and 5+1 negotiations. If you were waiting for a signal of the present regime’s intent, there it is. Amid domestic instability, and diplomatic overtures from the West, it has decided the time is ripe to re-arm its Lebanese allies, in direct contravention of a wide array of treaties and laws.

    It may well be the case that there is no realistic means of preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. ‘Strategic rapprochement’ will not do the trick; no conceivable reassurances or treaty obligations will convince the Iranian leadership that it is better off without nuclear weapons. It is not Libya. It sits next to Iraq which, in its view, suffered invasion and occupation precisely because it stopped halfway to weaponization.

    If you embrace grim pessimism, or even find the prospect of a nuclear Iran less-than-grim, then please say so plainly. But let us not pretend that tighter monitoring and additional signatures on paper will achieve what nothing else has managed to do. At best, it will allow us to know when the Iranians are breaking their commitments, and force measures of concealment that will slow progress. At worst, it will instill a false measure of complacency that will allow Iran to speed its work. But the international community has been manifestly unwilling to impose upon Iran any substantial punishment for its past violations of the rules. Instead, pundits like the authors respond by pushing new schemes which, in effect, allow Iran to keep the ill-gotten fruits of its past violations. This lesson is not lost on the Iranians, who view all threats as hollow, and understand that breaking the rules is ultimately to their advantage. Absent any change in that equation, it’s difficult to see why they’d stop their pursuit of nuclear weapons.

  2. MB (History)

    Fascinating, well done to the team putting this together. Is yellowcake produced at the Gchine site or at the BUP or both? The article indicates the BUP is the only site then later that Gchine produces it also.

  3. YK

    Enforcing zero enrichment in Iran is also in direct contravention of the letter and spirit of the NPT.

    It is the accusers, not the accused, who have breached the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The long-established nuclear powers have manifestly failed to meet their treaty obligation to pursue negotiations toward nuclear disarmament, while Iran is entitled under the treaty to enrich uranium for nonmilitary purposes.

    The UN Security Council, in demanding that Iran permanently cease uranium enrichment, assumes that it has the right to abrogate international treaties. It should, instead, declare that Israeli and American threats (“all options are on the table…”) to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities are a threat to international peace.

    Better still, tell Iran that if it forgoes its rights as a signatory of the existing international nonproliferation treaty in a fully verifiable form, the Security Council will ensure that Israel becomes a signatory and surrenders its nuclear weapons. The collective national interests of the West demand no less.

    Yugo Kovach
    Dorset, United Kingdom

  4. scud

    “The objective of nuclear diplomacy with Tehran should be to improve the international community’s ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear activities”. Aren’t you confusing tactics and strategy, or means and ends? Agree that the goal should not be “zero enrichment”, but it should not be “monitoring” either: it should be ensuring that Iran does not conduct activities prohibited by its safeguards agreements and/or by the NPT, and ensuring this in a verifiable way by monitoring.

  5. Azr@el (History)

    The only way to halt an Iranian virtual bomb is to sponsor its ethnic partition along the lines of Yugoslavia, the CCCP and eventually the PRC. Ancillary benefits would be the opening of new routes to Central Eurasian energy reserves. Fortunately the videos coming out from Teheran seem to suggest there are many Iranians willing to sell their nation for the right incentive; economic, social, subnational, etc..
    God bless the plenitude of convenient fools.

  6. VirtualNomad (History)

    If lies and deceit in the pursuit of national interests, real or perceived, were to preclude governments from seeking negotiated agreements, then the table would be empty.

    The call for “intrusive inspections,” as “Cynic” points out, doesn’t remove the contextual framework causing many to worry about Iran’s intentions. Intrusive inspections are a way of verifying that Iran would be living up to an agreement, like the sort of ‘Grand Bargain’ proposed by the authors.

    Determining whether or not negotiators can or want to strike a negotiated agreement, verified to a reasonable margin of error, is the central challenge for the post-revolutionary observer to Iranian-U.S. relations. Verification isn’t the end. It’s a decision-making tool that yields deeper knowledge about partners in an agreement.

    The satellite pictures show that if the U.S. wants an agreement with Iran, then verification should be the initial point of engagement. In the meantime, Iran is pursuing its perceived national interests in isolation without an adequate verificatory framework. To me, that is much more worrisome than however many tonnes of material is safeguarded at Natanz and verified facilities

  7. nick (History)

    Let me make a wild guess that IRI will not accept AP temporarily anymore or fully ratified, if Egypt and Saudi Arabia continue to refuse joining it, and Israel remains defiantly against NPT, with tacit support of Obama’s administration, as it was revealed recently. If Iran’s dossier is brought back to the Agency, IRI should consider confidence building majors to allay concerns of the West. Please note that “Gchin” was one of the 6 items on the “Work Plan” that was resolved. It was an embarrassment for the Agency because it was pushed by the West to have it checked and nothing unusual, menaing outside the current safeguards was observed.

  8. bts

    “Over the long term, the United States and its allies should work with Iran to establish more intrusive monitoring arrangments, in the context of strategic rapprochment between the United States and the Islamic Republic”

    If US and Iran want to normalize relations then they should just do it. This doesn’t concern IAEA etc.

    Relations between the two countries is bad enough as it is. There is no reason to complicate it more by making preconditions, demanding that Iran should make concessions over its legal nuclear program, or that Iran must give security assurances to its powerful nuclear armed adversaries encircling her from north, south, east and west. US doesn’t have any better demands?

    Too late though. Obama from day one had dug himself in a hole, he is making preconditions just like Bush was doing. Either Iran has to back down, US has to back down, or more likely, neither side backs down.

  9. mark hibbs

    A question prompted by this posting: Since 2006 we’ve been applying sanctions under UNSCR to Iran for enriching uranium and building a natural uranium-fueled reactor. The desired outcome of the UNSCR is that Iran will make a policy choice based on a cost-benefit calculus and cease these activities. So here’s the question: what is the track record of UNSCR getting countries subject to sanctions to make decisions which in essence say: “You’re right, sorry, we’re breaking international law and we’ll stop doing this.” In answering the question, please consider that one country in the region most strongly urging sanctions against Iran is a country which itself has been subject to UNSCR.

  10. FSB

    Mark raises a good point.

    Until Iran lays down and plays dead, or we have regime change we will never be satisfied. Consider that we had a no fly zone in Iraq and could examine the county with impunity and still we subjected ourselves to the peculiarly American paranoia that Saddam must have WMDs….somwhere.

    Iran is not a threat to the US. Get over it people.

    It may be a threat to Israel, but that is not the US’s problem.

  11. RAJ47

    •If, as per the joint post, the images suggest that Iran is moving toward operating the mine at its stated design capacity(stated while signing the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Prolfieration Treaty); why all this paranoia?

  12. Mark Gubrud

    One may surmise that the Iranians figure Obama is a pushover and isn’t going to bomb them no matter what, so now’s their chance to make that final dash to full nuclear status. Does this show the wisdom of a hawkish, threatening policy, and the folly of seeking peace?

    No, it shows the toxic effects of 8 years of Bush’s reckless aggression and obnoxious threats, and how these effects will outlast the W regime possibly preventing fulfillment of Obama’s time-reversed Peace Prize. The Iran we are dealing with today was forged in the Iraq invasion, after the failure of Iranian “moderates” to elicit any response from Bill Clinton. The Iranians have indeed been taught a lesson, and they have no reason to be confident Obama won’t be followed in 3 or 7 years by another Bushlike American, or even worse.

    The authors are right: Obama can’t just come in with smiles and audacious hopes and expect to extract the same concessions that Iran refused when Bush demanded them. Containment of Iran’s nuclear program within non-weapons boundaries, under rigorous verification, is a more realistic goal for now, if accompanied by progress towards resolving political and security issues, ending the cold war and normalizing relations.

  13. Bahram (History)

    All this could have been avoided years ago when, under Khatami, Iran offered to ratify the Additional Protocols in lieu of keeping its peaceful uranium enrichment program.

    But the West rejected this.
    The West responded by threats of bombing and sanctions.

    Now that the West’s bluff has been called, what leverage does the U.S. have to persuade Iran to accept the AP? The U.S. better have some giant incentives in store, way beyond normalization of ties, if they wish to convince Iran.

    A comprehensive agreement, including a solution to the problems in Israel/Palestine/Lebanon would have been the best way out of the impasse. But the American approach to the peace process shows that it is not willing to pressure certain parties to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The continuation of Israeli settlements is putting the final nails in the coffin of the two-state solution.

  14. scud

    Bahram: this is factually incorrect. Iran did sign the AP (but never ratified it – to the great disappointment of “the West”) and never said it was an alternative to its “peaceful” program.

    Incidentally, I (and I’m sure many other readers) am puzzled by the connection you’re making between Iran’s nuclear program and the Palestinian problem. But I don’t want to go too much beyond the immediate topic of the post.

  15. Anonone

    In 4 years or so, after Iran has its nuclear weapons program fully functional, I’m sure we’ll continue to see articles expounding on how it’s all the fault of America. Naturally , this is usually from those on the sidelines who failed to try rather than tried and failed.

    Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has said the country will not be dictated to – and there can be no dialogue if the United States is the wolf and Iran is the sheep. And while saying this, in the background could be heard pro-government demonstrators ritually chanting “Death to America and Israel.

    Best I can tell wolves don’t like carrots.

  16. anon

    …and they have no reason to be confident Obama won’t be followed in 3 or 7 years by another Bushlike American, or even worse.”

    You mean like a Jimmy Carter? 🙂

  17. Major Lemon (History)

    FSB, in 1941 Japan wasn’t a threat to the US either. The Americans could have let the [Japanese] have free reign in eastern and south east Asia and life in America would have gone on as normal.

  18. Andy (History)

    Major Lemon,

    While I agree with the gist of your comment, I think using an ethnic slur like “Japs” is completely inappropriate.

  19. IvoryTower (History)

    #WonkFail – What is meant by a “Grand Bargain”? That Iran be allowed to continue supporting terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories? In any sort of rapprochement, Iran will expect to be treated like the regional powerhouse, which means accepting Iran’s destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East.

    Oh yea, and I guess who cares about throwing the Iranian people and their democratic aspirations under the bus?

    When dealing with extremist parties, the STICK matters a lot more than the carrot. They always have an appetite for more carrots… and then you’re out of carrots and you have a gun to your head.

  20. Mark Gubrud

    Anonone and anon: I hardly think every bad actor on this stage is American, but if you take a moment to consider the US role and military posture in Iran’s neighborhood (contrasting it, for example, with Iran’s role and military posture in our neighborhood) as well as our role directly in Iran’s history, it seems a bit silly to deny that US policy has had and continues to have a huge effect on Iranian outlook and choices.

    I may have been a bit simplistic in laying it all on Bush The Egregious; the Iran we are dealing with could as well be said to have been forged in the experience of 1953, which also has a lot to do with the unfortunate experience of one J. C. and the impolitic habit some Iranian politicians have of wishing us “death”. I’ll also grant that the Iran-Iraq war, and the West’s role in arming both sides (but mainly Saddam, and yes, that was another bad actor, almost as lethal to Iraqis and Iranians as we have been), probably had something to do with hardening Iranian resolve to seek military strength.

    My point was about what kind of policies are likely to bring about a better situation in the future, and whether the fact that Obama may well fail to prevent Iran from “going nuclear” proves that the hawks were right all along. Only if war, death, and the ultimate destruction of human civilization are right.

  21. Bahram Chubin (History)

    “Scud:” Iran had made it clear to the West that they were willing to ratify the Additional Protocols if the West let them keep enrichment for civilian purposes. (Signing the AP is not the same as ratifying it.) The West rejected this.

    Sadly, right now I’m not sure if Iran will be willing to make a similar concession any more. Iran’s perception is that ratifying the A.P. would cause it a security vulnerability beyond the nuclear question. Just as the UNSCOM team in Iraq used inspections for espionage on
    Saddam’s security apparatus (as has been confirmed by both Hans Blix and Scott Ritter), the thoroughgoing inspection regime envisioned by the A.P. can be used to let the CIA and Mossad to “inspect” Iran’s secret non-nuclear facilities under the false pretext of nuclear inspections. At least, that is what Iran fears, and in light of how the Iraqi inspections were abused, it’s a legitimate fear.

    Imagine how much easier the negotiations would be if the two sides trusted each other. The Western side, however, has a track record of ignoring and abusing the rules due to political expediency (the NPT, the UNSCOM mandate, the UN charter which forbids invasions, support for Iraq while it used chemical weapons, etc.).

  22. Jeffrey Lewis (History)


    Apologies. I should have caught that. I’ve edited the original post.


  23. scud

    Bahram: “Iran had made it clear to the West that they were willing to ratify the Additional Protocols if the West let them keep enrichment for civilian purposes. (..) The West rejected this”. Again, a factually incorrect reconstruction of the 2003-2004 events. But my main point is that this issue, despite what Iran says, does not oppose Tehran to “The West”, but to the United Nations. Russia and China are full participants in the 5+1. And remember that the three UNSC resolutions were passed with very, very few negative votes, and many positive votes from obviously “non-Western” countries.

  24. VirtualNomad (History)

    The negative feed-back loop inside the Iranian echo chamber rings in this debate like a defective boson system (

    Turning commentary back to the photos, I wonder how others in the esteemed Wonking community interpret them.

    My own 2-cents: As an off-camera observer since 2004 to the Groundhog Day-like Iranian process, the pictures seem to indicate that:

    a. the same tedious process will continue.
    b. The West cobbles together national forces, willing to overrule their people’s self-interest, to attempt a forcible Iranian intervention.
    c. The West and Iran strike a verifiable agreement — including some level of security guarantee and right to enrichment — that allows international inspections

    The pictures illustrate these stark options because, whatever happens with the fuel negotiations revolving around Tehran’s research reactor, the Iranians are clearly showing they intend to replace whatever LEU may/may not be removed from Natanz. That waste pool may as well be a crop circle transmitting intentions to extraterrestrial Wonkers.

    Were I a betting man — which I’m not — I’d go for choice “a,” if for nothing else than because there’s developed such a cottage industry of analysts drawing their paycheck from pondering what to do next.