Qom Enrichment Facility Revealed; Moves to Sanction Iran gain Momentum

So I did this posting on Thursday night, below, on how I perceive President Obama to be maneuvering Iran into a box, wherein it faced increasing chances of the ratcheting up of sanctions by the United Nations Security Council. Then I went to bed and got on a plane the next morning and checked in late Friday to find that Obama had announced that Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency that they had begun construction on a second nuclear enrichment facility inside a mountain near the holy city of Qom not far from the capital of Tehran.

AP has video:

Obama alleged that Iran had declined to honor its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to inform the IAEA immediately when it began such construction, and that the facility was of a size (3000 centrifuges) that it could not plausibly be intended for the peaceful enrichment of uranium to run reactors for electricity generation. (50,000 centrifuges enriching to 2-5% or so would be required for the latter). On the other hand, if you were intensively enriching to make a bomb, 3000 if used over and over again on the same uranium stock could get it up to the 90% enriched level typically nowadays needed for a proper nuclear warhead.

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad shot back that no nuclear enrichment has been carried out at Qom and that Iran is only required by the NPT to inform the IAEA 6 months before such a site goes operational, which is precisely what he alleges Iran has done. He underlined that Iran was the one who told the IAEA about the facility, and fully intended that it should be inspected by UN inspectors. He denied that the facility’s size said anything about its intended function. As an engineer and mathematician himself, he taunted Obama, saying that the American president had no idea what he was talking about in relating size to function.

Julian Borger and Patrick Wintour of the Guardian report that Iran was forced to acknowledge the site because Western intelligence had picked it up in satellite photographs and then gathered information on it by other means. Ahmadinejad is correct in saying that by the letter of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran has not done anything illegal, insofar as the site has not gone operational and Iran is giving 6 months notice. However, the Iranian government had additionally pledged to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2006 that it would alert the UN to any new new nuclear facility immediately. So Iran may not have broken the law but it has broken its word.

For Iran to break its word on this matter is, moreover, as serious as for it to break the law. (This self-destructive and overly cocky way of proceeding in Tehran was the subject of my column for Salon this week, asking if Ahmadinejad is intent on turning his country into an international pariah.) Iran’s enemies, who want it put under severe economic sanctions of the sort that turned Iraq into a fourth-world country, and ideally would like to see the regime in Tehran overthrown– if necessary by military means– will point to the secret development of a new enrichment site as a sign of Tehran’s essential deviousness. It will be alleged that if there is one secret site there may be more. It will be alleged that you cannot trust anything Tehran says, and so its denials should be disregarded and action should be taken.

The thrust of my piece Friday morning was that Obama was tightening the noose on Iran. I was able to see that without knowing exactly why. I had wondered whether it had to do with the regime’s neo-authoritarian direction as of the contested elections in June.

The revelations on Friday do not change everything, though Neoconservatives will hype them as though they do. Iran has been less than forthcoming, not for the first time, but it may just be within the letter of the law. And, if it allows thorough inspections of the Qom site, it is hard to see how it could produce tons of U-235 there surreptitiously (the inspectors would immediately detect that). I share President Obama’s puzzlement as to what in the world they want a 3000- centrifuge site for.

But the law and the facts of the matter are less important than the determination of Europe and the US that Iran not develop even the Japan option. And this Qom facility and the delay in notification are powerful political arrows in the sanctions quiver. You wonder if Russia’s Putin and China’s Hu might not now acquiesce in tightened sanctions.

Since some of my readers appear not to know my record of writing on these matters and seem to confuse analysis with punditry, I should say that I am personally opposed to further sanctions on Iran unless they are very carefully targeted so as not to harm ordinary people. Regimes running oil states are not very vulnerable to sanctions. Moreover, sanctions against Iran are deeply unfair if Israel, India and Pakistan are held harmless for ignoring the NPT altogether and for developing their bombs. In fact, the way the UNSC is proceeding against Iran is such as to destroy the NPT, because any country in its right mind would prefer to withdraw from it and just do as it pleases, a la Israel, than to submit to it and have that submission be a pretext for sanctions, even where the signatory country had done nothing contrary to the letter of the law.

Finally, I leave readers with a caveat. There may be less to the Qom plant than meets the eye. Beware the Hype.

End/ (Not Continued)

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18 Responses

  1. Juan, the whole crux of your analysis centers on the contention that Iran has "broken" its word. Yes, during the ill-fated "Paris Agreement", the Iranians temporarily agreed to provide information more quickly, but due to the fact that the EU-3 violated the Paris Agreement, by demanding Iran abandon enrichment entirely, the Iranians decided to withdraw from this temporary arrangement. So now they're sticking to the 180-day rule. That's what they've signed up for, so it must be conceded that they are playing by the rules.

    This whole notion that they were "forced" to disclose the site because of Western intelligence acquisition can be dismissed, in the same way that this was somehow a "secret" site. The fact is that Iran has the right to build up its nuclear industries within the framework of the NPT, and disclose them to the IAEA per the rules set forth. They are doing this.

    If anything, the West's reaction to this news only confirms what Iran has been saying all along. It doesn't matter how strictly Iran adheres to the rules, the West will always attempt to twist things around, in order to prevent Iran from its right to peaceful nuclear technology.

    Really dishonest to portray this as Iran "breaking" its word.

    Come on, Juan. Ever since Ahmadinejad's latest holocaust remarks, you've adopted a decidedly anti-Iranian attitude. Your analyses are thereby skewed. Work on that.

  2. But the law and the facts of the matter are less important than the determination of Europe and the US that Iran not develop even the Japan option.

    This exactly gets to the heart of the conflict.

    The US and Europe surely have "determination" but Iran has spinning centrifuges – and can scale up its program immediately if new sanctions are imposed.

    I'd argue that as important as "determination" is, centrifuges are more important.

    Iran will reach a point, probably in less than 5 years if sanctions are imposed and Iran retaliates by pushing its enrichment full throttle, where it has no more uranium to enrich. All of it will be at 5% and maybe a bomb or two worth will be at 20%.

    At that point Iran will be willing to suspend, but preventing Iran from having a Japan option will be impossible.

    If I'm right that preventing a Japan option is impossible, then sanctions represent a needless and counterproductive risk on the part of the US.

    US "success" in boxing Iran into enduring sanctions aligns with Iranian "success" in reaching nuclear capability (a Japan option) as soon as possible.

    You also don't discuss why a Japan option is acceptable to the US for Japan and Brazil, but not for anyone in the Middle East other than Israel.

    That is an important part of the story.

  3. Beware the hype, indeed. Tomorrow and Sunday promise to bring us lots of new reading, most of it from the usual neocon and Likudnik suspects, who will be milking this "new" disclosure for all it's worth. Evidently the US has known about this facility at Qom for weeks, maybe months, but decides now, with the G-20 meeting, to drop its own bomb on Iran. Nothing like chumming when the sharks are already assembled and circling.

  4. There's problems with that Times Online piece that contends that:

    "Tehran finally woke up to the knowledge that the plant’s security had been breached,[so] it rushed to declare its existence to the IAEA, hoping to pre-empt other reports and prove its openness and co-operation. That image was shattered when Barack Obama, Nicholas Sarkozy and Gordon Brown got up to address the opening of the G20 summit in Pittsburgh and, standing side by side on the stage, made their revelation."

    The Iranians reported the site on Monday. It took the West until Friday to state that this was a "secret" site. Five days had gone by. The fact remains that the site was not revealed by the West, it was disclosed by the Iranians themselves, a whole four days before Obama, Brown and Sarzoky bade their so-called "revelation". So how can they say it was a secret and that they made the revelation? Nothing more than political grandstanding. They need it, because if the case were judged purely on its legal merits, the Iranians have the stronger hand.

  5. I recommend you to read Scott Ritter's comment on the "new" Iranian "revelation".
    A great analysis from someone who knows first-hand

    Keeping Iran honest

    Iran's secret nuclear plant will spark a new round of IAEA inspections and lead to a period of even greater transparency.

    While this action is understandably vexing for the IAEA and those member states who are desirous of full transparency on the part of Iran, one cannot speak in absolute terms about Iran violating its obligations under the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. So when Obama announced that "Iran is breaking rules that all nations must follow", he is technically and legally wrong.

    link to guardian.co.uk

  6. b fomerly of Moon of Alabama explains it all over at Pal Langs's

    "Even more clever that you thought.

    1. As current news reports say Iran has announced a new enrichment site to the IAEA.

    2. Under the NPT obligations Iran signed it has to announce nuclear facilities to the IAEA only 6 month before introducing nuclear material to such a facility. The alleged new "secrecy" is thereby a non issue as the facility is not yet in use and was announced to the IAEA on Monday.

    3. The NYT says the new site is a small for only 3,000 centrifuges. Such a site does NOT make sense to be used as a secondary for the big 50,000 centrifuges (planned end state) site in Natanz.

    4. Ahmedinejad asked yesterday for U.S. supply for the Tehran research reactor which was launched with U.S. help in 1968. That 5 MW reactor has undisputed medical and scientific use. It runs with medium enriched Uranium – i.e. 18-20% enrichment – and is under IAEA control.

    5. Iran can not make, without some serious re-engineering, such fuel in Natanz.

    6. An extra 3,000 centrifuge site makes perfect sense to medium-enrich especially for the Tehran research reactor.

    7. Now Iran can say: "Either you will sell us fuel for the research reactor or we, unfortunately, will have to make that fuel ourselves at the new site."

    Really clever people …

    Best step for the U.S. – agree to provide fuel for the research reactor and use the talks on this as a starting point.


    Posted by: b | 25 September 2009 at 08:50 AM"

    It was all in UN speech but who was listening. Just like Khaddafi in his UN speech was saying some very nice things about the Jews, but they and the Israeli Firsters hate him so much, nobody was listening.

  7. Professor Cole: "There may be less to the Qom plant than meets the eye. Beware the Hype."

    Same thoughts in this morning's audio commentary:

    "September 25 2009 Travus T. Hipp Morning News & Commentary: Iran's Newest 'Secret' Nuclear Project And Some Notes On Disarming A Nuclear Planet

    In The News: Iran and the four permanent members of the UN Security Council including Germany are going into conference next week over Iran's nuclear program and global nuclear disarmament even as Iran announces some details of another nuclear program. Expect some pronouncements from Western leaders attending the G20 as well.

    See the commentary for perspective, and the note below the synopsis for information on who exactly the "international community" is comprised of, and what THEY think about Iran's nuclear projects…."

    At My Site
    …Or Archive.org

  8. A certain level of defiance from Ahmadinejad is perfectly understandable, though not necessarily wise. His government is sorely in need of external threats to keep the population from open revolt. His very aim is to keep the Western nations agitated.

    US, Britain and France are foolish as they play into the hands of Ahmadinejad, by providing a ready flood of such threats.

    BTW, did anyone notice the unusual amount of nervous fidgeting by Sarkozy and Brown during the Obama speech? They seemed to be fully aware of the specious nature of the contents of that speech.

  9. The international community cannot allow Iran to development nuclear weapons. I'm glad that Obama is giving new emphasis to the United Nations, and sending the message to the world that the US needs help in stopping Iran's nuclear aspirations.

    I'm also pleasantly surprised that Russia is on board with sanctions against Iran. I think Obama is symbolically the "President of the World," and for the first time I can see a New World Order developing.

  10. Seeing as how countries that defy the IEAA can still be members of the UN (Israel, Pakistan, India), wouldn't the worse offense be violating the UN charter?

    Article 2, Section 3 of the UN charter states:

    "All Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered."

    Wouldn't you agree that Obama is violating the UN charter by threatening military action against Iran?

    His only defense is Article 2, Section 7:

    "Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter; but this principle shall not prejudice the application of enforcement measures under Chapter Vll. "


    I hardly see Iran's nuclear program as a "domestic" concern of the US.

  11. I agree with the first comment. The illegitimate khamenei/Ahmadinejad regime has become even more sickening than ever which makes it even more difficult to defend their POV when it is sound.

    As Juan says it is the permanent members that are undermining the NPT, and bearing in mind the procurement of bunker busters and modifications to B2s that were underway not so long ago (clearly with Natanz in mind) none of this is hardly surprising or even unreasonable.

    By the way I have become wary of Julian Borger's reporting on Iran. I brought this up with the reader's editor at the Guardian, providing detailed analysis of a particularly egregious episode and never received even an acknowledgement. The communication is detailed here:

    link to peaceandwisdom.wordpress.com

  12. the first comment appears to be correct. A quick search suggests that Iran formally withdrew from the Paris Agreement in February 2006 under which it had agreed to voluntarily implement the Additional Protocol.

    Juan, could you please clarify your reference to Iran's 2006 commitment?

  13. This is about oil and natural gas, just like everything else in the Middle East. Iran has lots of oil and natural gas. The U.S. wants it. Europe wants it. The nuclear refining issue is secondary. Iran and Venezuela just made an agreement to refine oil in Syria.

  14. The new site, built in a mountain, is not vulnerable to bombing like the Natanz site. It seems intended as insurance against a strike on Natanz. It destroys the argument of those who are calling for Iran to be bombed; it will establish once and for all that the threat to attack Iran is futile. In doing so, the site gives Iran considerable political leverage.

    Obviously, a site that is meant to serve as insurance need be launched on a full industrial scale, and that explains the small size of the site. To create a full industrial-sized site under a mountain would have been too expensive.


  15. We are told that US intelligence has known about construction of this facility for years. Yet, over the same period, US intelligence agencies have been adamant that Iran gave up its nuclear weapons program in 2003, and that it hasn't been restarted. This conclusion was just recently restated by the CIA.

    So why such outrage now? And if this is so important, why didn't the US inform the IAEA of the facility earlier.

    This whole story is starting to look quite contrived.

  16. Kadivar, currently teaching at Duke University, appealed to “the Iranian bourgeoisie” to provide funds for a new, independent national television. “The cost of a green medium have to be borne by Iranian investors.” The Iranian women are requested to donate their jewels as a patriotic gesture. Free, uncensored and genuine Iranian Radio and satellite television: That’s what currently is worked for in four countries. In Amsterdam, Mehdi Jami as a former head of the Farsi-speaking Radio Zamaneh has a lot of experience with bloggers in Iran. Now he wants to establish citizen journalism as a new generation of broadcasting, giving the young Iranians, who constantly provide their clandestine videos on YouTube, a national platform.

    Thus, networking, making various voices audible and being virtual, is the strength of the green movement ‐ and its weakness. It lacks a clearly audible voice, which eg comments on the resuming nuclear negotiations between Iran and the international community, beginning 1 Oct. Suspicion about Ahmadinejad buying legitimacy abroad which he is denied at home is rampant even among those who want the dialogue, basically. In Mousavi’s vicinity they say that “what ever is agreed now has no validity until it has been reviewed by a legitimate, new government of Iran.” Mousavi does not want to seek confrontation in this highly sensitive issue.

    link to rahaward.org

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