Joshua PollackQom, In The Basement

It is difficult to understate overstate the severity of the present crisis. President Obama had it exactly right on Friday morning when he said,

Iran’s decision to build yet another nuclear facility without notifying the IAEA represents a direct challenge to the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime.

Simply put, there is no credible explanation for the existence of the Qom facility—as described by Western officials yesterday—that doesn’t involve the option to produce future production of HEU-based nuclear weapons.

Obama walked a careful line in his remarks, reaffirming Iran’s “right to peaceful nuclear power that meets the energy needs of its people” and holding the door open to a diplomatic resolution, stating, “We remain committed to serious, meaningful engagement with Iran to address the nuclear issue through the P5-plus-1 negotiations.” It fell to French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Brown to threaten consequences. Sarkozy said, “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.”

All three leaders refrained from even the least hint of a threat to resort to force. This choice seems aimed at providing a basis for action in concert with Russia and China, whose cooperation will be necessary for another round of UN sanctions in any case. But if there is no turnabout by Iran and no united front on the Security Council, then there’s also no guessing where this crisis could lead.

So here’s hoping the talks go better than Iranian rhetoric now suggests. If the Iranian side simply cannot be persuaded to accept an alternative to a national enrichment program, such as a national fuel stockpile, then the Forden-Thomson proposal really ought to take center stage.

Modified Code 3.1

At the risk of redundancy, let me spell out a few points in Andreas’s post a little more fully.

Iran-watchers have been concerned about the possibility of another, undiscovered clandestine enrichment site for years, basically ever since the exposure of the hidden facilities at Kalaye Electric (where Iran’s first known centrifuge enrichment work secretly took place) and the big underground halls at Natanz. An unnamed senior White House official put it this way:

Now, it was evident to everybody, both the United States and our allies, that if the Iranians wanted to pursue a nuclear weapons option the use of the Natanz facility was a very unattractive approach; because the IAEA inspectors were there, it would be noticed if Iran tried to produce weapons-grade uranium at that facility, or if they expelled the IAEA inspectors, everybody would assume that they were converting the facility to produce weapons-grade uranium.

So the obvious option for Iran would be to build another secret underground enrichment facility, and our intelligence services, working in very close cooperation with our allies, for the past several years have been looking for such a facility. And not surprisingly, we found one. So we have known for some time now that Iran was building a second underground enrichment facility. And as the President mentioned this morning, it’s located near the city of Qom, a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility.

He added:

The safeguards agreement between Iran and the IAEA requires Iran to declare nuclear facilities as soon as they begin construction. Now, in March of 2007, Iran unilaterally said it did not feel bound by that element of its safeguards agreement. And we know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians unilaterally said that they did not feel bound by that obligation.

The official is referring to Iran’s abrogation of an agreement with the IAEA known as “modified Code 3.1.” Iran’s insistence that they no longer needed to provide early notification of the construction of nuclear facilities appears to have been a risk-reduction measure: if they were caught building a secret enrichment plant (or, let’s say, a secret reprocessing facility), then they could point to this legal maneuver back in March 2007, claiming that they had done nothing wrong. That’s the scenario that’s playing out now.

The IAEA emphatically rejected the move at the time, and has continued to do so. Here’s how the Director-General’s report of May 2007 (GOV/2007/22) addressed the matter:

12. On 29 March 2007, Iran informed the Agency that it had “suspended” the implementation of the modified Code 3.1, which had been “accepted in 2003, but not yet ratified by the parliament”, and that it would “revert” to the implementation of the 1976 version of Code 3.1, which only requires the submission of design information for new facilities “normally not later than 180 days before the facility is scheduled to receive nuclear material for the first time.” In a letter dated 30 March 2007, the Agency requested Iran to reconsider its decision.

13. Iran has taken issue with the Agency’s right to verify design information which had been provided by Iran pursuant to the modified Code 3.1 concerning the IR-40 reactor at Arak. The basis for Iran’s contention is that, under the 1976 version of Code 3.1, to which it had “reverted”, the verification of such information is not justified, given the preliminary construction stage of the facility (described as “far beyond receiving nuclear material”) and the Agency’s previous activities at Arak.

14. In accordance with Article 39 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, agreed Subsidiary Arrangements cannot be modified unilaterally; nor is there a mechanism in the Safeguards Agreement for the suspension of provisions agreed to in Subsidiary Arrangements. Moreover, Code 3.1 is related to the provision of design information, not to the frequency or timing of verification by the Agency of such information. The Agency’s right to verify design information provided to it is a continuing right, which is not dependent on the stage of construction of, or the presence of nuclear material at, a facility.

Ironically, the attempt to rewrite modified Code 3.1 mainly served to alert Iran-watchers to look a little harder for new clandestine facilities — little did we know that the Intelligence Community had already found one. Today, we see our worst suspicions confirmed.


  1. Pavel (History)

    I would be more cautious about making statements like

    there is no credible explanation for the existence of the Qom facility that doesn’t involve the future production of HEU-based nuclear weapons

    In a relatively complex and non-transparent system these kind of decisions can be made for a variety of reasons. Certainly, it was pushed by the people who want to see Iran having the nuclear weapons option (or, to be careful, the option of having the weapons option). It is not difficult to see how these people would win the argument in the environment of “all options being on the table” and things like that. But it is far from certain that there is a concrete plan to build a weapon or that there is a good understanding in the Iranian leadership of the consequences that discovery of this facility would have. Decision-making process is messy everywhere and there is no reason for it to be different in Iran.

    There is an interesting (and somewhat relevant) data point in the Cold War – the Krasnoyarsk radar built by the Soviet Union. Was it a violation of the ABM Treaty? Of course. Was it presented in the U.S. as part of a plan to build a national missile defense and as part of a “dangerous pattern of deception”? You bet. Was it either? Not at all. The decision to build a radar there just seemed like a good idea at the time and it didn’t really occur to the Soviet military they are doing something wrong.

  2. Josh (History)


    I don’t assume they would have set the facility to full throttle the very instant it was complete. (That’s what I was getting at with “future,” although perhaps this was unclear.) The fundamental issue is political will, not technological readiness.

    But let’s face it. Qom represented a clandestine weapons option at best. I can’t come up with any other explanation for its existence — plenty of space at Natanz, after all.

    I don’t think the Krasnoyarsk affair is the best analogy. It surpasses the imagination that anyone in Iran would not be aware of the significance of such a facility in the eyes of the rest of the world.

  3. Arnold Evans (History)

    Natanz is easier to bomb than Qom.

    If Iran’s 2003 acceptance of 3.1 was said at the time to be pending ratification by Parliament then it was never really accepted.

    It is clear that at the time took an entire raft of steps that it considered (and said publicly that it considered) voluntary, non-binding confidence building measures pending the outcome of negotiations with the condition that Iran not be referred to the UN Security Council but retain its right to indigenous nuclear technology. Many of the steps Iran took at the time explicitly carried these conditions.

    If Iran attached these conditions to its implementation of 3.1, then it was never legally bound to it.

    Maybe the 2003 communications between the IAEA and Iran will surface to shed more light on this matter.

    As of now, it is unclear. It is at least as likely that Iran was clear it was not making a permanent commitment as that it was.

    I guess there are three points about Iran’s desire to have a “Japan option”, or the capability to weaponize while remaining a non-Weapons NPT state that Western analysts seem completely unable to understand.

    1) The Japan option is legal. Japan has it. Brazil has it. The technology underlying it is, by the NPT, the right of all countries “without discrimination”.

    Nothing Iran has ratified, by any stretch of the imagination, makes access to such technology subject to the confidence of the United States or anyone else about Iran’s ultimate intentions.

    2) There are no sanctions that will be effective at forcing Iran to renounce that option.

    3) There is no military strike that will be effective at forcing Iran to renounce that option.

    Hysteria that will ultimately be frustrated in some ways works in Iran’s favor. A year from now when everyone has calmed down over Qom, a fatigue will set in that makes all parties more amenable to just accepting reality and moving on.

  4. Josh (History)


    Your theory of an “I-can-take-this-back-at-any-time” provision in Iran-IAEA agreements is certainly imaginative. I think we can leave it at that.

    What you delightfully call a “Japan option” is something that Japan almost certainly doesn’t have. I’d be quite shocked if they had a clandestine enrichment facility.

    There is an important difference between having the requisite technological base for nuclear weapons, as perhaps a couple dozen non-weapons states do today, and having the basement in Qom, to coin a phrase.

  5. Ben D (History)

    Josh said,..“Simply put, there is no credible explanation for the existence of the Qom facility—as described by Western officials yesterday—that doesn’t involve the option to produce future production of HEU-based nuclear weapons.”

    Josh, what with the incessant US (all options on the table) and Israeli threats to bomb the Natanz facility, it makes sense to reduce vumerablility to this threatened possibility, this in the context of providing fuel for their near ready nuclear electrical power generating facility. Now obviously it follows that to build a backup facility that is equally vulnerable to bombing would be absurd and a total waste of money and resources, however to build it such that it is reasonably invulnerable to aerial bombardment is a rational consequence of the ongoing real threat of hostile forces opposed to Iran.

    Do you not find that a reasonable understanding of the motive for the new facility?

  6. M Mir (History)

    I’d be shocked too if Japan had a clandestine enrichment faciltiy, considering they have a 60 ton stockpile of HE Pu. As for Brazil, they would certainly have their enrichment in the basement under the same threat. You see it’s simply a matter of whether or not one is considered overtly hostile to the US that determines whose facilities are “legal” out in the open and those who are in the basement. BTW, this endless debate over technicality violations of the NPT by Iran while overlooking wholesale gutting of the spirit of the NPT by the west is moot. It is a certainty that Iran shotgunned its latest move. And that for the 1 facility uncovered in Qom, there are 5 others at exactly the same state of progress as yet to be discovered. And more to come. Iran’s nuclear program is no longer limited by centrifuges but only by floorspace.

  7. Josh (History)


    In a word — no.

    Judging by the account of the facility that we have, it’s much too small to service Bushehr.

    In any case, Iran does not appear to be producing any fuel for Bushehr today, and is unlikely to do so in the future. Russia is under contract to do so and has already supplied the first fuel load.

    It’s also doubtful that an unfueled reactor would survive intact and commence operations under the war scenario that you are positing.

    But in such a war situation, Iran would have another purpose it could put a well-hidden, well-protected uranium enrichment facility to.

  8. Arnold Evans (History)

    Iran was going beyond the letter of its agreements in 2003 as confidence building measures.

    It was crystal clear that it exactly “could take these measures back at any time”.

    Iran signed and implemented the Additional Protocols with the clear understanding that it would stop if conditions such Iran’s file being kept from the security council stopped being met.

    The only question is was Iran’s acceptance of a modified code 3.1 expressly tied to the same provisions.

    It actually probably was. This is something that can be cleared up through the 2003 communications.

    Iran in 2003 had a right to provisionally implement code 3.1 just as it provisionally implemented the Additional Protocols the same year. This was Iran going beyond its legal requirements.

    If Iran wanted, it could implement the Additional Protocols on Mondays, Code 3.1 on Tuesdays and suspend enrichment on Wednesdays. These were measures beyond its legal requirements that it took at its own discretion.

    In 2003, only an Iranian agreement that its implementation would be permanent could have given Iran a legal requirement for permanent implementation of Code 3.1.

    And you’re not really claiming Japan does not have what I’m calling “a Japan option” are you? Are you really?

    A bombing is not going to happen. Sanctions will speed rather than slow Iran’s enrichment program.

    Western analysts seem to be whipping themselves up into a hysteria right now that is hurting their own analysis more than it could hurt Iran.

  9. Behnam (History)

    I disagree.

    Firstly, this is not a secret or illegal site. The NPT requires countries to declare new sites 180 days before they becomes operational. Iran has given a much LONGER notice than the 180 days required.

    Second, Iran’s new site is important for its plan to maintain a CIVILIAN enrichment program for the 18 or so nuclear reactors it seeks to build. Allow me to explain.

    The plant is being built in a mountain. Unlike the Natanz plant, it is not vulnerable to aerial assault by bunker buster or tactical nuclear bombs. This means that as soon as the site becomes operational, the arguments (and plans?) of those who want to bomb Iran will evaporate into oblivion.

    By removing the threat of bombing, the new site accomplishes two things: first, it serves as insurance for Iran’s entire nuclear industry. Second, the removal of the threat translates into considerable political leverage.

    Note that since the site serves as insurance policy, it need not be a full-scale plant. Building something like the Natanz plant under a mountain would be prohibitively expensive. There’s an optimization problem here: the site has to be large enough to convince everybody that bombing cannot stop enrichment; but given the huge expense of building a plant under a mountain, the site should not be any larger than that. That explains the size of the plant.

    * * *

    In trying to understand where the Iranians are coming from, you should take note of an important fact. In the last six years, not a week has gone by without an article in some Western newspaper about possibile plans for an American or Israeli strike on Iran. Iran believes that if the US and Israel think that they can severely set back Iran’s program, they will launch an attack. They are also weary of being blackmailed: the threat of force gives the US leverage on a number of political questions.

    If anything, I think Iran has been too slow in building an indestructible plant. We’re hearing about this site a full six years after the threats of bombing began.

  10. RAJ47

    Hysteria is being created by Western nations over these facility.
    Please understand, that it was Iran sending a letter to IAEAon Monday. Western nations did not divulge the information even when they knew it. What was their motive for hiding this information?

    “And as the President mentioned this morning, it’s located near the city of Qom, a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility.”

    The facilities suspected by ISIS @ are still under construction and not complete (as of Aug 2009)as quoted @ “I don’t assume they would have set the facility to full throttle the very instant it was complete.”

    The facility is not heavily protected. It has only one empty SAM location (probably HQ2)West of Qom. The AAA although prepared at other places are not occupied. The ISIS has not done a complete interpretation of these facilities. The motive, again not known.

    Every underground facility is disguised but there are techniques to find out exactly the size especially in terms of volume. The number of centrifuges can exactly be determined by SIGINT. But, what I notice in the images in ISIS document is, that there is no camouflage done on the facility/ies. If the senior White House official is talking about the “steel plant” the preparation of defences for AAA gives out the intention immediately.

    The hysteria is probably being created only to change the leaders of Iran who are not ready to tow US line, as very vividly said by Sarkozy , “If by December there is not an in-depth change by the Iranian leaders, sanctions will have to be taken.”

    There does not seem to be any case aginst Iran, atleast for the time being.

  11. George William Herbert (History)

    Japan has moderate externally supplied HEU stocks – almost 2 tons at various enrichments – and an active but safeguarded fuel cycle and enrichment program which if they chose to withdraw from the NPT could be changed into a HEU enrichment program rapidly.

    NTI describes it in moderate detail:

    The many tons of plutonium are a possible weapons fissile material source but have a significant disadvantage, that they’re reactor grade Pu and therefore take careful handling and will be predetonation prone in implosion weapons.

    If Japan needed 5-10 atomic weapons next week, which is unlikely but not inconceivable, they could rapidly dissssemble their HEU critical assemblies and reactors and create some compact gun bombs. There is some dispute about exactly how hard it is to produce reliable compact gun bombs, but there is little disagreement that it’s a much simpler problem than any of the implosion designs, and its design and testing can be done with much lower profile.

    As part of normal security threat assessment, many threshold states have done active detailed design analysis studies on weapons design issues, which serve as somewhat of a “legitimized surrogate” activity. Japan has not openly admitted to such – but it would be likely they have done them.

    This is the entire threshold country conundrum. Countries operating advanced nuclear programs are on the threshold of being nuclear weapons states. They may not want to be weapons states, or may not have any need to in the immediate or near term, but all of them could break out and weaponize easily.

    Most of the threshold states are clearly not interested in crossing the line, and are very open about their activities to avoid any confusion about their intent or current capabilities. But in practical terms, once you are at that level, intent is the harder barrier than capability.

    Iran is approaching the point at which it could have multiple weapons “a week from now”, even if it does not build them immediately upon reaching that threshold.

  12. Pedro

    In Iran such tunnel facilities are only built for one reason: ballistic missile bases. Any satellite imagery analyst would confirm this.

    However this facility has none of the characteristics of a missile base, no high bay garage no storage bunkers and so on.

    That’s why it becomes very suspicious, just like Natanz was very suspicious at the time it was under construction.

    The Qom facility was clearly suspicious at all stages and I would not call it “secret”. In fact any intelligence agency which would miss it would be very amateurish.

  13. Allen Thomson (History)

    Perhaps it was coincidence, but this event followed not long after the US says it became convinced that the Qom facility was for centrifuges:

    Pentagon eyes accelerated “bunker buster” bomb
    Sun Aug 2, 2009 4:49pm EDT
    By Jim Wolf

    * Bomb could be ready for B-2 bomber by July 2010

    * Would deliver 10 times explosive power of predecessor

    WASHINGTON, Aug 2 (Reuters) – The Pentagon is seeking to speed deployment of an ultra-large “bunker-buster” bomb on the most advanced U.S. bomber as soon as July 2010, the Air Force said on Sunday, amid concerns over perceived nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran.

    The non-nuclear, 30,000-pound Massive Ordnance Penetrator, or MOP, which is still being tested, is designed to destroy deeply buried bunkers beyond the reach of existing bombs.

  14. blowback (History)

    Josh – the enrichment plant is an insurance policy and a bargaining chip – we constantly hear from Washington and Tel Aviv that “all options are on the table” including military attacks on the IRGC, the Iranian military and their nuclear program. Iran is simply saying to them that if you bomb Natanz we have other enrichment plants we will use so the only way to stop us getting the bomb if you attack us is to invade us and after the disaster in Iraq, the US is going to be very reluctant to do that and Israel doesn’t have the capacity.

    The real reason for this “crisis”? Perhaps Obama wants to bury the Goldstone Report and what better way to do it the shout “fire” about what more than half the world probably regards as a legitimate activity. I might be wrong and unduly cynical but there is something strange about this response from the West.

  15. Rwendland (History)

    Arnold, Josh,

    Does anyone have an online link to the letters where Iran “signed” Code 3.1? I haven’t been able to track them down in the INFCIRC index.

    When Iran signed both the Safeguards Agreement in 1974 (INFCIRC/214) and the Additional Protocol on 18 December 2003 they adopted the enter into force later when parliament etc agrees article options (Art. 25 in INFCIRC/214 and Art. 17 in INFCIRC/540).

    It seems reasonable to suppose that would be Iran’s intention also when “signing” Code 3.1. So it would be interesting to examine the relevant letters. It does suggest Iranian officials cannot legally enter such binding international arrangements on behalf of the Govt of Iran without a ratifification process.

    Here is Art. 25 in INFCIRC/214:

    “This Agreement shall enter into force on the date upon which the Agency receives from the Government of Iran written notification that Iran’s statutory and constitutional requirements for entry into force have been met. The Director General shall promptly inform all Member States of the Agency of the entry into force of this Agreement.”

  16. Anonymous (History)

    Your discounting of the need to maintain a secure facility free from bombing is seriously flawed. Yes, such a site is only suitable for enriching uranium to high levels. But the implication that it will be used for such a purpose immediately has no basis. The plant can simply represent an insurance policy to be used if and when they are bombed. They get bombed or feel under threat of attack and the centrifuges start spinning. I doubt that any member of the NPT not under a nuclear weapons umbrella would be willing to give up their “threshold rights”. Unfortunately, there’s nothing in the NPT that prevents a country from putting together an infrastructure that has the potential for bomb making purposes. Given that Iran is unlikely to ever forsake enrichment we are left with few alternatives. The best being, as has been mentioned, to accept a multinational enrichment plant(s) on Iranian soil.

  17. Bob Reed (History)

    M Mir has a good point that there are most certainly other clandestine sites like the one at Qum. That’s why in some ways it was foolish to spread the word about this discovery amongst our allies, and the public, because most certainly it is how the info got leaked to t he Iranians; now they’ll be even more careful, and ssupicious of facility infiltration and observation…

    As has been pointed out ny more than one souce, there is at least one other hidden site for unranium conversion to feed the Qum enrichment site.

    From the AP:
    “George Perkovich, an Iran expert at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested Iran must be building at least one other unreported facility, a uranium conversion plant to provide feedstuff for the newly disclosed enrichment plant. That’s because the Iranians’ known conversion plant, at Isfahan, is under IAEA oversight.

    “Why would you have a secret enrichment plant under a mountain if you don’t have a secret conversion plant?” he asked.”

    There are many more sites, and the latest revelation of western intelligence information on Iranian efforts to evade international oversight of their nuclear program will only increase the Iranian’s awareness of the need for increased secrecy.

    It does not bode well…

  18. anon

    The “Modified Code 3.1” was a recognized tripwire to Iran’s intentions. I can’t agree this latest public revelation adds to the severity of the situation considering the length of its known presence.

    A “crisis” – apparently not. Otherwise, why wait so long to reveal its existence. Our “worst suspicions” were confirmed some time ago.

    If Iran had not “discovered” the secrecy breach, just exactly when were we planning to reveal this “secret” facility?

    Makes me wonder about the timing for revealing other “secret” nuclear related facilities.

  19. Cernig (History)


    “Judging by the account of the facility that we have, it’s much too small to service Bushehr.”

    Suppose another 2 or 3 such sites were discovered. Would that therefore – by your stated logic – bolster Iran’s version, that it represents dispersal from possible attack by saber-rattlers?

    Regards, Steve

  20. DZ (History)

    why is it that whatever Iran says is a lie but what ever the US says is the truth. Whats the evidence that says that this facility was going to be kept a secret. After all Iran reported the facilities existence before anybody else did.. spare me the he said she said please.

    Secondly Iran has a medical research reactor in Tehran that requires fuel enriched at 20%… Wouldn’t this site be a good place to enrich fuel for this plant?

  21. David (History)

    It is fascinating to see how this website now jumps on the ‘Iran actually is a nuclear threat and we’ve been predicting it for years’ bandwagon after denying it so vehemently for years. Very similar to how this site so strongly denied that the Syrian facility could possibly a nuclear reactor. See the postings from Sept/Oct 2007 which so quickly jumped to conclusions, only later to admit reality.

  22. Rwendland (History)

    Arnold, Josh,

    Does anyone have an online link to the letters where Iran “signed” Code 3.1? I haven’t been able to track them down in the INFCIRC index.

    When Iran signed both the Safeguards Agreement in 1974 (INFCIRC/214) and the Additional Protocol on 18 December 2003 they adopted the “enter into force later when parliament etc agrees” versions (see Art. 25 in INFCIRC/214 and Art. 17 in INFCIRC/540).

    It seems reasonable to suppose that would be Iran’s intention also when “signing” Code 3.1. So it would be interesting to examine the relevant letters.

    Here is Art. 25 in INFCIRC/214:

    “This Agreement shall enter into force on the date upon which the Agency receives from the Government of Iran written notification that Iran’s statutory and constitutional requirements for entry into force have been met. The Director General shall promptly inform all Member States of the Agency of the entry into force of this Agreement.”

  23. Norman (History)

    Although many of us agree with the Forden-Thompson/Pickering-Walsh+ option of allowing LEU enrichment with “intrusive” AP+ inspections, and a MNEF, the problem is how to get from here to there. Right now, Western leaders and media are convinced that enrichment must be stopped cold and sanctions are the way to go (or “to do something”), and then if they fail, an attack is an inevitable but undesirable option. There is almost no discussion of the third option. People talk about the importance of negotiations without explaining what kind of negotiations might meet both sides half-way. There are strong US internal political forces that simply don’t really want to hear this. All of us who have thought this through ought to be contacting people and writing to put this on the radar.

    Also, as Prof. Gary Sick, Iran expert and formerly NSC member, has just said: “The real purpose of negotiations, in my view, is to build a system of monitoring and inspections that will (1) provide maximum early warning of a potential future Iranian decision to “break out;” and (2) insure the maximum possible interval between that moment and the moment where Iran could actually have a bomb. Iran has said on several occasions that it is willing to accept such an enhanced inspection regime, but it will no doubt insist on a price. That, I think, is what the negotiations should be about.”

    In the same vein, none of you wonks have answered my question about how “snap” or “intrusive” inspections could work if Iran claims that a site in question is militarily “sensitive” and refuses access. That’s got to be part of the package.

  24. Shay Begorrah (History)

    Mr Pollack, do you think that given that Iran has been denied the full advantages of being a signatory of the NPT and also recognizing that prominent politicians and public figures in both the US and Israel have repeatedly urged that Iran’s existing enrichment facilities be attacked and destroyed that the preparation a new and more defensible facility underground seems unreasonable?

    Outside of the question of the legality of the notice period, which seems both arguable and a comparatively minor issue, does the NPT oblige Iran to only build monolithic nuclear facilities that are vulnerable to attack? Or is that just another Iran specific “confidence building” measure?

    The current storm of criticism and threats against Iran and its nuclear ambitions from the US and its obedient allies seem much less like an attempt to make the world a safer place than one to maintain a strategic advantage.

    It is a sad and worrying spectacle.

  25. HAL 2000

    It is not clear from the early press reports exactly how blatant a violation this really is.

    According to the Washington Post, Iran notified the IAEA on September 21 that it was constructing a new pilot enrichment plant. Assuming that it has not already introduced nuclear material into this facility (and Tehran says it hasn’t), Iran is therefore in compliance with the NPT’s Comprehensive Full Scope Safeguards Agreement, which requires it to notify the IAEA six months before nuclear material is introduced into any new facility.

    Iran previously withdrew from the more demanding Subsidiary Agreement 3.1, which would have required more detailed and timely notification, in response to the IAEA’s decision to refer Iran’s nuclear program to the U.N. Security Council. So from Tehran’s perspective, this new facility is not a violation at all: they are permitted to enrich under the NPT and they have complied with the Comprehensive Safeguards agreement by notifying the IAEA of the new facility.

    The United States has an obvious response: unilateral withdrawal from Agreement 3.1 is not permissible, and so technically Iran is still in violation of its past commitments, but this legalistic back-and-forth is part of a long pattern. In addition, the U.N. Security Council has passed several resolutions demanding that Iran cease all enrichment, and its refusal to comply provides the main legal basis for sanctions. Iran is hardly the first country to ignore Security Council resolutions, however, and Tehran undoubtedly believes that the construction of a second plant is not a direct violation of its more basic obligations under the NPT.

    The bottom line is that we still don’t yet know just how serious the new discovery is. If nuclear material is already present there (despite what Iran now says), then it is a clear violation of the agreements that Iran’s government has repeatedly claimed it is upholding, and thus casts even more doubt on its credibility. If the facility is still under construction and no nuclear material has been introduced, then Iran is technically in compliance of the basic safeguards agreement, and trying to exploit various legal loopholes. (Again, it is defying the SC resolutions, but it was doing that already and so today’s announcement adds nothing new).

    The New York Times story also makes it clear that this discovery is not by itself evidence that Iran has an active nuclear weapons program. The new facility is an enrichment plant, not a bomb-building factory, and everyone knows that Iran was already producing low-grade enriched uranium. Accordingly, the new revelation does not contradict earlier intelligence estimates which concluded that Iran was not actively trying to build a bomb.

    Most importantly, this new information does not strengthen the case for using military force against Iran’s nuclear program, although hawks are bound to invoke it for that purpose. Airstrikes can delay Iran’s acquisition of a nuclear weapon, but cannot prevent it, and they are likely to strengthen Iran’s resolve to acquire a genuine deterrent as soon as they can. Attacking Iran will rally the population around the regime, and given Iran ample reason to retaliate against the United States or its allies in Iraq, or Afghanistan, or elsewhere in the Middle East.

    If we want to stop an Iranian bomb (as opposed to halting its nuclear enrichment activities), we are going to have to convince Iran that it doesn’t need a nuclear deterrent to be safe. That won’t be easy to do, given that Iran has three nuclear neighbors (Pakistan, India, and Israel), and a very bad relationship with the United States, which has given millions of dollars to Iranian opposition groups and formally committed itself to regime change on several past occasions. Persuading Tehran that they don’t need a deterrent requires taking the threat of force, regime change, and the like off the table, instead of ratcheting the threat level up. I’m not saying that this approach will work; I’m saying that threatening preventive war won’t. And actually launching a preventive war is likely to make things much worse.

    Since Iran reported the facility to the IAEA on the 21st, I assume that it’s existence was going to come out in the press anyway. When that happened, the take-away might have been that Iran was engaging in good international behavior by complying with IAEA reporting requirements, and doing so on its own initiative. It also would have left egg on the face of Western intelligence, since the world would have learned of this facility directly from Iran, without any heads-up from the West. Washington would have responded, no doubt, that they knew about the facility all along. But who would believe them after the fact?

    And if people did believe Washington, they would then have blamed them for covering up a security threat for political reasons. People would then say, “When exactly were you planning to tell the rest of us about this new facility?”

    So it looks like Obama, Brown and Sarkozy decided to pre-empt a potentially very embarrassing situation by jumping in front of a camera to present the story that they had “caught” the Iranians first.

    Where was the media on this? Who covers the IAEA beat? If the IAEA learned of this facility on the 21st, why hasn’t that already been reported? Is the IAEA airtight?

    And if this new facility poses any sort of threat, and Western governments knew of its existence long ago, then why didn’t these governments report what they knew to the IAEA, so that the IAEA could make inquiries with Iran and investigate? Surely they could have given enough information to get the investigative ball rolling, without revealing sources and methods.

    This is just another case of hindering the ability of the IAEA to do its work, for the sake of negotiation games.

  26. blowback (History)

    Josh – you are being a bit selective in your choice of opinions on Iran and its dropping on the modified Code 3.1. There is from 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.

  27. bradley laing (History)

    Intelligence experts in the West and in Israel assumed for some time that a country that is seeking to acquire nuclear weapons would also develop a secret installation for enriching uranium so that it could hide its activities from the international community.

    At such an installation, it would then be able to enrich uranium to a sufficiently high level that it would be usable as fissile material in a nuclear bomb. Indeed, what has taken place over the past few days has been the realization of those estimates, with Iran announcing that it had in place an additional installation for uranium enrichment, beyond the one the inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency were aware of in Natanz.

    —-Does this article contain any new information you do not already know?

  28. kme

    The Australian IC seems to agree that Japan have the capability to produce nuclear weapons on a short timeframe.

    It is pretty hard to argue that it’s not been a matter of national policy for several NNWS to be a nuclear threshold state whilst remaining a member of the NPT.

  29. Cliff (History)

    I also take issue with your assertion that the Qom facility could only be significant for military purposes. As you edited it, the remark contains no information: Yes, every enrichment facility has the the hypothetical capability to be used to create HEU. But as Ben said, given the US-Israeli position that Iran has no right to any enrichment on its soil (and implicitly that we have the right to destroy any such facilities as we see fit), it is quite sensible to spread the capability around geographically. It might not be a large enough facility to supply Bushehr, but right now all Iran’s enrichment is for research anyway, and as everyone knowns Iran’s enrichment is a matter of considerable symbolic national importance.

    And yes, if Iran were subject to attack by the US or Israel, then a hidden facility could be used to launch an HEU crash course. But there’s a big difference between preserving the capacity to break out and go for a bomb in the event of an attack (in which case Iran would be completely justified in withdrawing from the NPT) and trying to develop an illicit weapons program under the nose of the IAEA, which is what your statement seems to imply.

    Im not denying the possibility that this plant might have been intended to be used for a covert weapons program, but there is plenty of legitimate rationale for it as well. Unless you think we own the world.

  30. Miles Pomper (History)

    Don’t you mean it would be difficult to “overstate” the importance not “understate”?
    Also, per one of your comments, remember under Vienna convention once an agreement is signed countries are required not to do anything to interfere with object and purpose of the treaty—people use this same argument vis US and CTBT for example.

  31. bradley laing (History)

    —-Did you know any/all of this information before I sent it?

    The United States has known for years of the existence of a secret Iranian nuclear enrichment facility, a senior U.S. official stated Friday.

    The official stated that the facility is well-hidden and well-defended and that Iranian officials admitted to building the facility after they discovered that its existence was known.

    The U.S. source said that Iran discovered that U.S. intelligence had compiled a dossier on the facility and the Islamic Republic then sent a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) disclosing the existence of the facility.
    A different U.S. official has stated that next week’s meeting in Geneva will be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate its willingness to cooperate with the West. The official added that in the coming weeks, the United States will lead the West in putting forth a policy of “pressure and involvement”, which if it fails, will lead to more harsh measures against the Islamic Republic.

    The IAEA earlier Friday demanded access to the second plant, which it was informed of by Tehran on Monday.

  32. Josh (History)

    My apologies to readers for the delay in updating comments. “Anon,” above, was not the only one to register a complaint, only the most civil. The emoticon surely helped.

    I’m pressed for time, and will have to make a fuller response later.

  33. Shay Begorrah (History)

    Mr Pollack, I have to say that the moderation of ACW has always seemed timely, generous and fair. On the occasions that my postings have been rejected I happily accepted that they either added nothing to the debate or were too inflammatory or rude for the oasis of collegial and informative discussion that is ACW.

    Thanks for all of your efforts.