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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informed the IAEA, he asserted, because "they came to believe that the value of the facility as a secret facility was no longer valid…"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.