It isn’t clear why, exactly, the United States and its allies revealed today what they know about a secret uranium enrichment facility in Iran. The New York Times, which broke the story, says:
“American officials said that they had been tracking the covert project for years, but that Mr. Obama decided to disclose the American findings after Iran discovered, in recent weeks, that Western intelligence agencies had breached the secrecy surrounding the complex.”
What “Western intelligence agencies” did to breach the secrecy isn’t stated. But the revelation is devastating for Iran, guaranteed to raise suspicions about Iran’s intentions, inflame the passions of bomb-Iran hawks, and vastly complicate the talks between Iran and the P5 + 1 world powers scheduled to start on October 1.
Iran has informed the IAEA about the new facility, into which, the IAEA says, no nuclear material has yet been introduced, i.e., the site is not operational. Of course, it isn’t surprising that Iran might build a hardened facility more impervious to military attack, given the drumbeat of warnings that the US and/or Israel might launch an assault on Iran’s scattered nuclear installations. But the existence of the previously unreported facility, combined with Iran’s apparent efforts to conceal it from the IAEA and the world community, will only add heft to charges that Iran is covertly seeking a military nuclear capability, i.e., an A-bomb.
That latter possibility is at the center of the new revelations, since it suggests that Iran might be seeking to construct a facility in which it could secretly enrich its low-enriched, fuel-grade uranium into high-enriched, weapons-grade material.
According to the Times, the facility is built into a mountainside near Qom, Iran’s religious capital, and is designed to handle 3,000 centrifuges, i.e., about half of what Iran already has installed in its Natanz site. Worryingly, Obama said, without elaborating:
“The size and type of the facility is inconsistent with that of a peaceful facility.”
Presumably, though it isn’t known, Obama and the Western allies briefed the Russians and the Chinese about the secret facility, as part of their effort to win support for a unified position on Iran that might include a new round of UN Security Council sanctions if the talks don’t make progress. French President Sarkozy has warned explicitly that Iran must face new sanctions by December.
The Russians have been dropping hints since last week that they’d be willing to consider new sanctions on Iran. So far, that message has been conveyed by President Medvedev, though (as Fox News reports) it hasn’t been echoed by Vladimir Putin yet. It’s been widely reported since last winter that Obama and the Russians had discussed an off-the-record quid pro quo: cancellation of the missile defense system in eastern Europe in exchange for Moscow’s support on Iran.
Speaking to students in Pittsburgh, Medvedev said:
“I don’t consider sanctions the best way to achieve results on Iran … but all the same, if all possibilities to influence the situation are exhausted, then we can use international sanctions.”
Still, analysts tell The Dreyfuss Report that while Russia and China might go along with another round of sanctions, it’s extremely unlikely that they’d accede to draconian measures such as a prohibition on gasoline and refined petroleum products to Iran. Instead, they say, Moscow and Beijing would only accept far more moderate and targeted sanctions aimed specifically at Tehran’s nuclear industry.
Gordon Brown, at Obama’s side in Pittsburgh, said:
“The level of deception by the Iranian government, and the scale of what we believe is the breach of international commitments, will shock and anger the entire international community. The international community has no choice today but to draw a line in the sand.”
Expect the pressure on Iran from hawks, neocons, and Israeli hardliners to ratchet up to the highest level now. Perhaps, hardliners in Iran — above all, President Ahmadinejad — are counting on exactly that to strengthen their position at home, still challenged by reformists, oppositionists, pragmatists, and many leading members of the clergy. Why else would Ahmadinejad reiterate his outrageous Holocaust-is-a-myth rhetoric on the very eve of his UN visit, if not to raise tension levels? And Bibi Netanyahu, his opposite number, responded in typical knee-jerk fashion, waving a copy of the German plans for Auschwitz’s crematoria and gas chambers during his UN speech, adding that Iran represents the “marriage of religious fundamentalism and weapons of mass destruction.” And he said:
“The most urgent challenge facing this body today is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
FOR FURTHER READING Here’s a partial text of a background briefing by “senior administration officials” on the secret Iranian facility:
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. We believe that it’s not yet operational. We think it’s most likely at least a few months, perhaps more, from having all of the centrifuges installed and being capable of operating if the Iranians made a decision to begin operating it.
Our information is that the facility is designed to hold about 3,000 centrifuge machines. Now, that’s not a large enough number to make any sense from a commercial standpoint. It cannot produce a significant quantity of low-enriched uranium. But if you want to use the facility in order to produce a small amount of weapons-grade uranium, enough for a bomb or two a year, it’s the right size. And our information is that the Iranians began this facility with the intent that it be secret, and therefore giving them an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it.
Now, as I said, we’ve been aware of this facility for several years; we’ve been watching the construction, we’ve been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant. We also learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised. So they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid. …
Fairly recently — and recognizing that they might then choose to disclose the facility themselves, we worked with our allies — the U.K. and the French — to put together a briefing, an extraordinarily detailed briefing, for the IAEA, because we anticipated that we would need to provide that briefing to the agency so that they would be able to conduct a proper investigation — not just of the facility itself, but of the support facilities that are producing materials and equipment for this facility, what the Iranian decision-making process and intent was to build this facility. …
Now, earlier this week, as President Obama said, we learned that Iran sent a letter to the IAEA which in very vague terms disclosed that Iran was constructing a “pilot-scale enrichment plant” designed to produce 5 percent enriched uranium, and that the Iranians would provide additional information in the future as appropriate. Well, based on that letter, we felt it was important that we proceed quickly to brief the IAEA so that they can conduct an adequate investigation. And as the President said, we carried out that briefing in Vienna yesterday. And the IAEA, I’m happy to say, is following up very vigorously. You can ask them, of course, but my understanding is that they’re seeking access to this facility as soon as possible. And no doubt they will be reporting to the Board of Governors on the results of their investigations.
Now, we think, as the President said, this is another example, if we needed one, to remind us that the history of Iran’s program is very disturbing. The Security Council — several Security Council resolutions since 2006 has demanded that Iran suspend all enrichment-related activities. This program is obviously a violation of that — of those Security Council resolutions.
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.
So clearly this is inconsistent, in my view; obviously a violation of their safeguards agreement. The IAEA will obviously be investigating that and making a report to the Board of Governors as they pursue their investigation.
One last thing I want to say. This was very sensitive intelligence information. But nonetheless, in order to build a coalition with the P5-plus-1, we are taking the extraordinary step of sharing as much of the information as we can with the other countries that are part of this group — the Russians, the Chinese, and the Germans. And they are studying that information. We’ll be engaging with them. I think that it will benefit our diplomatic efforts to once again reveal that Iran is carrying out nuclear activities in secret in violation of their international obligations.
And I think you’ve seen that our strategy has already begun to bear fruit. As you all know, in the meeting earlier this week between President Obama and President Medvedev, President Medvedev talked about the possibility of needing to use sanctions if diplomacy failed. President Obama and President Hu also had extensive discussions on the question of how to deal with Iran, and obviously the October 1st meeting of the P5-plus-1 in Iran is going to be a critical test of Iran’s intention. …
I’m just going to mention a few things about the diplomatic track. As I’m sure most of you know, in April of this year, the P5 countries, the permanent members of the Security Council, and Germany, met in London to address the diplomatic track. They reaffirmed the proposal that’s been on the table for quite a while since June 2008, and they called on Iran to begin engagement, to begin direct negotiations.
There was a lot of support for the policies of the new Obama administration for having a tough, direct dialogue with Iran. So this offer was made repeatedly. The Iranians refused to meet, refused to accept this offer. The President has been making clear for quite some time that it’s important for the international community to take stock of the situation, and he specifically talked about September and the beginning of the U.N. General Assembly when world leaders would be coming together to evaluate Iran’s seriousness in addressing the concerns of the international community. I think Iran was feeling the pressure that was being put on them, and they agreed to hold a meeting of the P5-plus-1 countries on October 1st in Geneva.
This is going to be a critical opportunity for Iran to demonstrate that it’s willing to address the very serious concerns that have been raised about its intentions in the nuclear area.
I think all P5-plus-1 countries are united. Two days ago in New York, foreign ministers of those countries issued a strong statement. They demonstrated that they are unified. They reaffirmed what we call a dual-track policy, engagement on the one hand but pressure and sanctions if Iran does not negotiate seriously.
So October 1st will be a serious test of Iran’s willingness to address these concerns, and as a result of the initiative taken today to reveal this previously undisclosed site, this matter will be on the agenda of October 1st. Iran will be pressed to cooperate with the IAEA’s investigation of this very disturbing situation.
We hope that there will be tangible progress. But it’s up to Iran. It’s up to Iran to respond in a concrete way to the offers that are on the table and to address the concerns of the world community.