Iran’s Covert Nuke Sites : How Many Are There?

Uranium enrichment facility near the holy city of Qom in Iran. Photo from Reuters.

How many secret nuclear sites does Iran have?

Secret facilities that evade the IAEA’s cameras and measuring devices can have only one purpose — to create nuclear material that would be available for a bomb, whether or not Iran has made a final decision to build one.

By Steve Weissman / The Rag Blog / October 1, 2009

In November 2004, the German magazine Der Spiegel revealed that Iran was digging a secret tunnel for a uranium enrichment facility near an existing site at Natanz, in Isfahan province. The Natanz facility was — and is — monitored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Truthout, for which I was a senior editor at the time, published a summary of Der Spiegel’s story, though only after some late-night soul-searching. Der Spiegel had gotten its information from an unidentified intelligence agency, which could have been spreading disinformation to whip up support for Vice President Dick Cheney’s campaign to bomb Iran. But, on balance, the story fit with what we knew and our responsibility was first and foremost to bring our readers significant news reports from around the world.

Last Friday at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama revealed that Iran was building another secret underground enrichment facility, this one in a mountain on a military base near the holy city of Qom, some 100 kilometers southeast of Tehran.

Iran had failed to report the facility to the IAEA until September 21, claiming that it would be only a small pilot plant with a maximum of 3,000 centrifuges. Washington and its allies countered that this was big enough to produce one bomb’s worth of highly enriched uranium per year.

According to the New York Times, US intelligence officials acknowledged that they had no evidence that Iran has taken the final steps toward creating a bomb.

American, British, and French intelligence officials told journalists that they had known of the site “for a few years” through satellite reconnaissance and “multiple human intelligence sources.”

According to the Wall Street Journal, German and Israeli intelligence services began looking for a hidden site as early as 2002. They had been analyzing Iran’s nuclear purchases, and found items that the Natanz facility would not have needed.

“We knew the site existed, but at that time we didn’t know where,” a European intelligence officer told the Journal.

All of which raises a troubling question. Did Der Spiegel and Truthout get the story wrong five years ago? Or does Iran have a third enrichment facility yet to be acknowledged?

The world needs to know. Any nation with facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium can in time produce a nuclear weapon. The IAEA’s monitoring of those facilities and their output offers the only safeguard that other nations have under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which Iran has signed.

Secret facilities that evade the IAEA’s cameras and measuring devices can have only one purpose — to create nuclear material that would be available for a bomb, whether or not Iran has made a final decision to build one.

An unmonitored enrichment plant would also give Iran an added advantage. The facility at Natanz could produce low enriched industrial grade uranium without creating any problem with the IAEA. The secret facility could then further enrich the uranium to create weapons grade material.

This is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is not simply channeling Colin Powell at the United Nations in warning that Iran is moving toward weapons of mass destruction. She is right to insist that Iran prove to the world that all of its facilities are fully open to inspection.

The Iranians must “present convincing evidence as to the purpose of their nuclear program,” Clinton told CBS’ Face the Nation. “We don’t believe that they can present convincing evidence, that it’s only for peaceful purposes, but we are going to put them to the test.”

Clinton would do better to drop her schoolmarm tone and “the West knows best” attitude. A little adult diplomacy might help the Iranians back down from their past lack of transparency. But, their past lack of candor makes it imperative for Iran to embrace full nuclear transparency in the talks in Geneva this week.

Nor does the need for transparency stop with Iran. The United States is currently allied with three other nations in the region — India, Pakistan and Israel — that have major nuclear arsenals, but flatly refuse to sign the NPT or accept full-scale IAEA monitoring. If the Obama administration means what it says about Iran and the threat of nuclear weapons, it is well past time for American officials to make the same demands on New Delhi, Islamabad and Tel Aviv that they are now making on Tehran.

Obama would also do well to get beyond repeating yet again that “all options are on the table.” The Iranians clearly know that the White House has just requested $88 million in emergency funding to modify our B-2 stealth bombers to carry a newly developed bunker-busting bomb that can destroy hardened underground targets.

That is more than enough saber-rattling, unless Obama wants to find himself forced by public hysteria to do to Iran what Dick Cheney never got to do.

[Steve Weissman is a former senior editor at Truthout. A veteran of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement and the New Left monthly Ramparts, Weissman lived for many years in London, working as a magazine writer and television producer. He now lives and works in France. For previous articles by Steve Weissman on The Rag Blog, including those about Iran and the “Green Revolution,” go here.]

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2 Responses to Iran’s Covert Nuke Sites : How Many Are There?

  1. Fed Up says:

    According to Scott Ritter, the “covert” claim is specious. I trust Mr. Ritter, he is an honest person who told us the entire truth in the debate prior to Bush’s insane invasion of Iraq, and at great cost to himself. He is not a zealot on any ideological spectrum.

    http://i3.democracynow.org/2009/9/29/fmr_un_weapons_inspector_scott_ritter

    It is possible that because the US is threatening constantly to take Iran’s nuclear power plant out of commission, when Iran has said again and again, including by religious Fatwa, that they will not make or use nukes as weapons, that they are simply building backups? If that is not possible, then why? The answers I hear to that question are ALWAYS massively racist.

    Who has Iran invaded recently? Who has Iran made war on? Why would Iran seek nukes, if she were, for any reason other than defensively?

  2. spsartarelli says:

    Sorry Steve, but like the previous commenter, I’ll take Ritter’s word over yours. Your reporting in this piece is disingenuous at best. You say: “Last Friday at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, President Barack Obama revealed that Iran was building another secret underground enrichment facility. […] Iran had failed to report the facility to the IAEA until September 21…”
    Well, a quick check of the calendar shows that last Friday was Sept 23, thus when Obama announced this “secret” site, it was not so secret anymore, was it? Anyway, as anyone who follows this story closely knows, by not revealing the site until Sept 21, Iran was simply following a complicated internal protocol, which it was entitled to do according to the terms of its signing of the NPT, and was not in violation of any stipulations of said agreement. Again Ritter, but also others such as Glenn Greenwald, make this quite clear. On the basis of this specious reasoning, you go on to say: “Secret facilities that evade the IAEA’s cameras and measuring devices can have only one purpose — to create nuclear material that would be available for a bomb.” Well, no. First of all, it is not, as we have seen, so secret, and second, if you wanted to build nuclear reactors for peaceful purposes and the region’s most vicious attack dog had been threatening for years to bomb anything you might build, you might actually want to have a backup plan, one which you would perhaps take all the time allowed you by international agreements to make public. Moreover, if such “secret facilities evade the IAEA’s cameras and measuring devices” how indeed do you know they exist? Especially if the IAEA says they don’t? Are we to take Israel’s word over the IAEA’s?
    You also say: “Any nation with facilities to enrich uranium or reprocess plutonium can in time produce a nuclear weapon.” Well, then, that would include all countries who process uranium for peaceful purposes, now wouldn’t it? And you say, significantly, “in time,” without specifying how much time. But others fortunately have been more precise, specifying that even in a worst-case scenario, it would take Iran at least a year, with their current facilities, to create one bomb (for which no evidence exists), a fact that torpedoes all this false alarm, for even if they did go ahead and produce this one bomb, it would be virtually useless against Israel (the prime source, along with the US, of all this agitation), which is armed to the teeth with nukes.
    You follow with wild speculation, not based on any demonstrated fact, that “an unmonitored enrichment plant would also give Iran an added advantage. The facility at Natanz could produce low enriched industrial grade uranium without creating any problem with the IAEA. The secret facility could then further enrich the uranium to create weapons grade material.” And you add fuel to the fire saying that the dubious Hillary Clinton “is right to insist that Iran prove to the world that all of its facilities are fully open to inspection,” thus endorsing her deplorable “guilty until proven innocent” logic, which is exactly the same as that use by the Bush administration’s obstinate refusal to base their belligerence towards Iraq on anything based in verifiable reality. And citing the WSJ as a source for your arguments, a magazine that was one of the principle cheerleaders for the mendacious buildup to the distastrous and ongoing war on Iraq, needs no comment.
    Which only leaves the question of why you are pursuing your current line of argumentation, especially after writing a number of pointed and helpful articles demonstrating US (via NED and other agencies) meddling in the recent “contested” elections in Iran, a campaign that many, including myself, believed to be designed, at least in part, to soften up Western public opinion to the notion of attacking Iran. Which the present course of events appears to confirm.

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