Why Iran confessed to secret nuke site

We have been aware of this facility for several years, says western official

North-east of the mosques of Qom, the theological heart of Iran, the revolutionary guard had established an anti-aircraft missile battery at the base of the mountain, western officials said. As intelligence analysts tried to discover what the missiles were there to protect, satellite imagery began to reveal intensive activity at the side of the mountain. “There was extensive excavation and construction work under way,” a western official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The Qom site was put under more frequent surveillance to check on the progress, but at that point it was just one site among the several suspect zones being watched.
“It was like a stake-out of a building,” a British official said. “You know something wrong is going on in there, but you have to wait until you have got all the evidence.”

Western intelligence had been looking for a clandestine uranium enrichment site, suspecting that while the attention of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) was fixed on the known enrichment plant at Natanz, Iran would have a parallel programme hidden elsewhere intended to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons. Technical advances from the overt site would be continually transferred to the covert one. Qom seemed to fit the bill. A senior US administration official described the site as “a very heavily protected, very heavily disguised facility”.

The official added: “We have been aware of this facility for several years; we have been watching the construction, we have been building up a case so that we were sure that we had very strong evidence, irrefutable evidence, that the intent of this facility was as an enrichment plant.”

Enrichment plant
At some point this summer, US, British and French intelligence agencies were able to corroborate the information they had, and concluded that the Qom site was an enrichment plant. “We believe that it is not yet operational. We think it is most likely at least a few months, perhaps more, from having all of the centrifuges installed and being capable of operating if the Iranians made a decision to begin operating it,” the senior American official said.
It is not clear how the western intelligence came to the conclusion that the Qom plant was big enough for 3,000 centrifuges.

The conclusion reached by the CIA, MI6 and France’s DGSE put Washington, London and Paris in a dilemma. Barack Obama had offered to extend America’s hand if Iran “unclenched its fist” and the approach appeared to be giving Tehran more trouble than George Bush’s bellicosity — by removing a bogeyman and paving the way for a serious challenge to the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in the June elections.
Earlier this month, Iranians finally agreed to a meeting on October 1, and arrangements were made to meet in Geneva. “If we had come out with this, we would have been accused of torpedoing the process,” a western diplomat said. In the end, the Iranians appear to have become aware that the Qom secret was out and pre-empted the inevitable disclosure by admitting it in a letter to the IAEA’s director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, delivered on Monday.

The letter said Iran was building a “pilot-scale enrichment plant” designed to produce low enriched uranium, but that no uranium had so far been processed. The Iranian argument is that under IAEA safeguards, as long as no uranium hexafluoride is fed into centrifuges, the plant is not nuclear, and therefore Iran has no obligation to notify the IAEA until six months before uranium is introduced.

The Guardian

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