What Really Prompted Iran to Build the Qom Enrichment Facility?
The Obama administration claims that construction of a second Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Qom began before Tehran’s decision to withdraw from a previous agreement to inform the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in advance of such construction. But the November 2007 U.S. intelligence estimate on Iran’s nuclear programme tells a different story.
The Iranian decision to withdraw from the earlier agreement with the IAEA was prompted, moreover, by the campaign of threats to Iran’s nuclear facilities mounted by the George W. Bush administration in early 2007, as a reconstruction of the sequence of events shows.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters Sep. 25 said, "We know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians unilaterally said they did not feel bound by that [IAEA] obligation."
The U.S. intelligence assessment of the period, however, makes it clear that Iran did not begin construction on the Qom enrichment facility until long after its public change of policy on informing the IAEA.
The published key judgments of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Iran’s nuclear programme contained a little-noticed statement that the intelligence community judged that Iran’s "covert" uranium conversion and enrichment activity had "probably been halted in response to the fall 2003 halt", and "probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007".
That clearly implied that U.S. intelligence had found no evidence of any undeclared covert enrichment facility.
An intelligence source familiar with the text of the full unpublished NIE has confirmed to IPS that the estimate does not refer to any evidence of a second enrichment site, even though it discusses the central importance of covert enrichment in any Iranian nuclear breakout scenario.
The estimate made no mention of such evidence despite the highly publicised fact that that the Qom site was one of many which were under constant surveillance by U.S. intelligence because of the tunneling system already dug into the side of the mountain.
Despite the claim that construction on the Qom facility began before April 2007, the senior administration official conceded in the Sep. 25 briefing that it was only in early 2009 that U.S. intelligence had seen construction activity consistent with an enrichment facility.
That is consistent with the statement by the Iranian vice president and head of the Atomic Energy Organisation of Iran, Al Akbar Salehi, that his agency took over a military ammunition dump in 2008 and only then began construction on an enrichment facility.
The Iranian decision to withdraw from the "subsidiary agreement" to which it had agreed in February 2003 requiring it to inform the IAEA of any new nuclear facilities as soon as the construction decision was made occurred in the context of a series of moves by the Bush administration to convince Iran that an attack on its nuclear facilities was a serious possibility.
In December 2006, major U.S. news media reported that a second U.S. carrier task group was being sent to the Persian Gulf to send a message to Iran.
The U.S. campaign of threats intensified in January, when Bush accused Iran and Syria of "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in and out of Iraq" and charged Iran was "providing material support for attacks on American troops". That formulation appeared to be aimed at establishing a legal basis for an eventual U.S. attack on Iranian territory.
The Guardian reported Jan. 31, 2007, "Senior European policy-makers are increasingly worried that the U.S. administration will resort to air attacks against Iran to try to destroy its suspect nuclear programme."
Then the Washington Post reported Feb. 11 that a foreign diplomat had been told by Vice President Dick Cheney’s national security adviser John Hannah that a U.S. attack on Iran was "a real possibility" in 2007.
A few days later Newsweek reported that it was "likely" a third carrier task group would overlap for a period of months with the two existing task forces. The story recalled that the presence of three carrier task groups in the Gulf simultaneously was the same level of U.S. striking power as the administration had in place during the air campaign against Iraq in 2003.
Finally, on Mar. 27, the United States began a naval exercise in the Gulf involving both aircraft carriers and a dozen more warships already in the Gulf, along with about 100 aircraft. The exercise, which took several days to complete, was the first joint naval and air operation since the air campaign against the Saddam Hussein regime.
A front-page article in the New York Times called it a "calculated show of force" which was "part of a broader strategy to contain Iranian power in the region".
Just two days later, on Mar. 29, Iran notified the IAEA that it was suspending its implementation of the modified version of its "subsidiary arrangement" with the IAEA, signed in February 2003, which required that it provide "preliminary design information" to the agency as soon as the decision to construct a nuclear facility has been taken.
Instead, Iran said, it was reverting to its commitment under the older version of the subsidiary arrangement. That called for Iran to inform the agency of any new nuclear facility no less than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear material into the facility.
Iran was evidently determined to leave no ambiguity about why it was making that change. On Apr. 3, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Maj. Gen. Hassan Firoozabadi, predicted publicly that the United States and Israel would launch a massive attack on the region that summer.
And that same day, Hamidreza Taraghi, the international affairs chief of the Islamic Coalition Party, which was part of the pro-government coalition of the conservative parties, explicitly linked the Iranian shift on its IAEA agreement with the heightened threat from the U.S. military.
U.S. military deployments in the Persian Gulf were "very similar to those before the Iraq invasion", said Taraghi, and therefore, "We should not volunteer information regarding our nuclear sites, as they may be misused by the Americans."
Taraghi was referring to the fact that any design information on Iranian nuclear facilities would help the U.S. and Israeli air forces prepare for an attack on those targets.
On Apr. 13, Iran sent another letter to the IAEA rejecting the agency’s right to verify design information previously provided on the IR-40 heavy water reactor at Arak.
The sequence of events surrounding the Iranian policy change and the subsequent beginning of construction on a second enrichment facility suggests that Iran was hedging its bets against a U.S. air attack, while retaining the obligation to provide detailed information six months before the introduction of nuclear material – if the threat of an attack were to subside.
The Iranian decision to inform the IAEA of the existence of the Qom site in September appears to reflect a much lower perception of threat of an U.S. attack compared with the perception in early 2007.
News coverage of the Qom site was dominated by the story told by the senior U.S. official at the Sep. 25 briefing that Iran had decided to inform the IAEA of the Qom site on Sep. 21 only because it knew the site had been discovered by U.S. intelligence.
In fact, however, U.S. intelligence was in the dark about why Iran had done so.
An unclassified set of Questions and Answers on the Qom enrichment facility issued by the U.S. government the same day as the press briefing, and later published on the website of the Institute for Science and International Security, included the following:
Q: Why did the Iranians decide to reveal this facility at this time?
A: We do not know.
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.