FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

U.S. Story on Iran Nuke Facility Doesn’t Add Up

by GARETH PORTER

The story line that dominated media coverage of the second Iranian uranium enrichment facility last week was the official assertion that U.S. intelligence had caught Iran trying to conceal a “secret” nuclear facility.

But an analysis of the transcript of that briefing by senior administration officials that was the sole basis for the news stories and other evidence reveals damaging admissions, conflicts with the facts and unanswered questions that undermine its credibility.

Iran’s notification to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the second enrichment facility in a letter on Sep. 21 was buried deep in most of the news stories and explained as a response to being detected by U.S. intelligence. In reporting the story in that way, journalists were relying entirely on the testimony of “senior administration officials” who briefed them at the G20 summit in Pittsburgh Friday.

U.S. intelligence had “learned that the Iranians learned that the secrecy of the facility was compromised”, one of the officials said, according to the White House transcript. The Iranians had informed the IAEA, he asserted, because “they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid…”

Later in the briefing, however, the official said “we believe”, rather than “we learned”, in referring to that claim, indicating that it is only an inference rather than being based on hard intelligence.

The official refused to explain how U.S. analysts had arrived at that conclusion, but an analysis by the defence intelligence consulting firm IHS Jane’s of a satellite photo of the site taken Saturday said there is a surface-to-air missile system located at the site.

Since surface-to-air missiles protect many Iranian military sites, however, their presence at the Qom site doesn’t necessarily mean that Iran believed that Washington had just discovered the enrichment plant.

The official said the administration had organized an intelligence briefing on the facility for the IAEA during the summer on the assumption that the Iranians might “choose to disclose the facility themselves”. But he offered no explanation for the fact that there had been no briefing given to the IAEA or anyone else until September 24 – three days after the Iranians disclosed the existence of the facility.

A major question surrounding the official story is why the Barack Obama administration had not done anything – and apparently had no plans to do anything – with its intelligence on the Iranian facility at Qom prior to the Iranian letter to the IAEA. When asked whether the administration had intended to keep the information in its intelligence briefing secret even after the meeting with the Iranians on Oct. 1, the senior official answered obliquely but revealingly, “I think it’s impossible to turn back the clock and say what might have been otherwise.”

In effect, the answer was no, there had been no plan for briefing the IAEA or anyone.

News media played up the statement by the senior administration official that U.S. intelligence had been “aware of this facility for years”.

But what was not reported was that he meant only that the U.S. was aware of a possible nuclear site, not one whose function was known.

The official in question acknowledged the analysts had not been able to identify it as an enrichment facility for a long time. In the “very early stage of construction,” said the official, “a facility like this could have multiple uses.” Intelligence analysts had to “wait until the facility had reached the stage of construction where it was undeniably intended for use as a centrifuge facility,” he explained.

The fact that the administration had made no move to brief the IAEA or other governments on the site before Iran revealed its existence suggests that site had not yet reached that stage where the evidence was unambiguous.

A former U.S. official who has seen the summary of the administration’s intelligence used to brief foreign governments told me he doubts the intelligence community had hard evidence that the Qom site was an enrichment plant. “I think they didn’t have the goods on them,” he said.

Also misleading was the official briefing’s characterization of the intelligence assessment on the purpose of the enrichment plant. The briefing concluded that the Qom facility must be for production of weapons-grade enriched uranium, because it will accommodate only 3,000 centrifuges, which would be too few to provide fuel for a nuclear power plant.

According to the former U.S. official who has read the briefing paper on the intelligence assessment, however, the paper says explicitly that the Qom facility is “a possible military facility”. That language indicates that intelligence analysts have suggested that the facility may be for making low-enriched rather than for high-enriched, bomb-grade uranium.

It also implies that the senior administration official briefing the press was deliberately portraying the new enrichment facility in more menacing terms than the actual intelligence assessment.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s offer the day after the denunciation of the site by U.S., British and French leaders to allow IAEA monitoring of the plant will make it far more difficult to argue that it was meant to serve military purposes.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that Iran never intended to keep the Qom facility secret from the IAEA but was waiting to make it public at a moment that served its political-diplomatic objectives.

The Iranian government is well aware of U.S. capabilities for monitoring from satellite photographs any site in Iran that exhibits certain characteristics.

Iran obviously wanted to make the existence of the Qom site public before construction on the site would clearly indicate an enrichment purpose. But it gave the IAEA no details in its initial announcement, evidently hoping to find out whether and how much the United States already knew about it.

The specific timing of the Iranian letter, however, appears to be related to the upcoming talks between Iran and the P5+1 – China, France, Britain, Russia, the United States and Germany – and an emerging Iranian strategy of smaller back-up nuclear facilities that would assure continuity if Natanz were attacked.

The Iranian announcement of that decision on September 14 coincided with a statement by the head of Iran’s atomic energy organisation, Ali Akbar Salehi, warning against preemptive strikes against the country’s nuclear facilities.

The day after the United States, Britain and France denounced the Qom facility as part of a deception, Salehi said, “Considering the threats, our organization decided to do what is necessary to preserve and continue our nuclear activities. So we decided to build new installations which will guarantee the continuation of our nuclear activities which will never stop at any cost.”

As satellite photos of the site show, the enrichment facility at Qom is being built into the side of a mountain, making it less vulnerable to destruction, even with the latest bunker-busting U.S. bombs.

The pro-administration newspaper Kayhan quoted an “informed official” as saying that Iran had told the IAEA in 2004 that it had to do something about the threat of attack on its nuclear facilities “repeatedly posed by the western countries”.

The government newspaper called the existence of the second uranium enrichment plan “a winning card” that would increase Iran’s bargaining power in the talks. That presumably referred to neutralizing the ultimate coercive threat against Iran by the United States.

GARETH PORTER is an investigative historian and journalist with Inter-Press Service specialising in U.S. national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in 2006.

 

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

More articles by:
May 24, 2016
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
The Financial Invasion of Greece
Jonathan Cook
Religious Zealots Ready for Takeover of Israeli Army
Ted Rall
Why I Am #NeverHillary
Mari Jo Buhle – Paul Buhle
Television Meets History
Robert Hunziker
Troika Heat-Seeking Missile Destroys Greece
Judy Gumbo
May Day Road Trip: 1968 – 2016
Colin Todhunter
Cheerleader for US Aggression, Pushing the World to the Nuclear Brink
Jeremy Brecher
This is What Insurgency Looks Like
Jonathan Latham
Unsafe at Any Dose: Chemical Safety Failures from DDT to Glyphosate to BPA
Binoy Kampmark
Suing Russia: Litigating over MH17
Dave Lindorff
Europe, the US and the Politics of Pissing and Being Pissed
Matt Peppe
Cashing In at the Race Track While Facing Charges of “Abusive” Lending Practices
Gilbert Mercier
If Bernie Sanders Is Real, He Will Run as an Independent
Peter Bohmer
A Year Later! The Struggle for Justice Continues!
Dave Welsh
Police Chief Fired in Victory for the Frisco 500
May 23, 2016
Conn Hallinan
European Union: a House Divided
Paul Buhle
Labor’s Sell-Out and the Sanders Campaign
Uri Avnery
Israeli Weimar: It Can Happen Here
John Stauber
Why Bernie was Busted From the Beginning
James Bovard
Obama’s Biggest Corruption Charade
Joseph Mangano – Janette D. Sherman
Indian Point Nuclear Plant: It Doesn’t Take a Meltdown to Harm Local Residents
Desiree Hellegers
“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street
Lawrence Davidson
The Unraveling of Zionism?
Patrick Cockburn
Why Visa Waivers are Dangerous for Turks
Robert Koehler
Rethinking Criminal Justice
Lawrence Wittner
The Return of Democratic Socialism
Ha-Joon Chang
What Britain Forgot: Making Things Matters
John V. Walsh
Only Donald Trump Raises Five “Fundamental and Urgent” Foreign Policy Questions: Stephen F. Cohen Bemoans MSM’s Dismissal of Trump’s Queries
Andrew Stewart
The Occupation of the American Mind: a Film That Palestinians Deserve
Nyla Ali Khan
The Vulnerable Repositories of Honor in Kashmir
Weekend Edition
May 20, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
Hillary Clinton and Political Violence
Andrew Levine
Why Not Hillary?
Paul Street
Hillary Clinton’s Neocon Resumé
Chris Floyd
Twilight of the Grifter: Bill Clinton’s Fading Powers
Eric Mann
How We Got the Tanks and M-16s Out of LA Schools
Jason Hirthler
The West’s Needless Aggression
Dan Arel
Why Hillary Clinton’s Camp Should Be Scared
Robert Hunziker
Fukushima Flunks Decontamination
David Rosen
The Privatization of the Public Sphere
Margaret Kimberley
Obama’s Civil Rights Hypocrisy
Pete Dolack
We Can Dream, or We Can Organize
Chris Gilbert
Corruption in Latin American Governments
Dan Kovalik
Colombia: the Displaced & Invisible Nation
Jeffrey St. Clair
Fat Man Earrings: a Nuclear Parable
Medea Benjamin
Israel and Saudi Arabia: Strange Bedfellows in the New Middle East
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail