The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) published new evidence Monday that Iran had been building "contingency centers" in the event of a U.S. bombing attack as early as 2002, years before it began building the second enrichment facility at Qom.
But the latest report on Iran’s nuclear program by the agency appeared to reject Iran’s account of how and when it had decided to build the Qom enrichment plant and implied that it believed Iran was hiding the construction of other facilities.
The report provides new evidence that the Qom enrichment facility was constructed on one of many sites where tunneling had been prepared as early as 2002 to protect various kinds of facilities from a possible U.S. air attack.
The apparent Iranian decision to begin preparations for a U.S. attack on Iran in 2002 came after President George W. Bush had declared in his Sep. 20, 2001 speech to a joint session of Congress that any nation that "continues to harbor or support terrorism" would be regarded as a "hostile regime" and then named Iran as part of the "Axis of Evil" with Iraq and North Korea in January 2002.
The new evidence contradicts the U.S. charge that Iran had been working on constructing a covert enrichment plant for several years – well before March 2007, when Iran announced that it would no longer inform the agency of new facilities as soon as the decision had been made to construct them.
The Iranian account documented in the report puts the decision to build the Qom enrichment facility in mid-2007.
The report quotes from an Oct. 28 Iranian letter to the IAEA stating, "As a result of the augmentation of the threats of military attacks against Iran, the Islamic Republic of Iran decided to establish contingency centers for various organizations and activities…[elipses in original]."
No date is cited for that decision, but the IAEA report refers to satellite imagery of the site indicating construction began at least as early as 2002. The agency said it had "informed Iran that it had acquired commercially available satellite imagery of the site indicating that there had been construction at the site between 2002 and 2004, and that construction activities were resumed in 2006 and had continued to date."
The IAEA apparently intended to convey the idea that this was construction on a second enrichment plant. In a story published Nov. 13 – three days before the report was circulated to IAEA Governing Council members – Associated Press reporter George Jahn reported unnamed diplomats as saying Iran had started building the plant in 2002, that the construction had paused for two years in 2004 because of Iran’s suspension of enrichment and had resumed in 2006, when enrichment had been resumed openly.
Independent analysis of satellite imagery has shown, however, that those earlier images were of construction on the general purpose "contingency centers" rather than an enrichment facility. Paul Brannan, a satellite imagery analyst for the Institute for Science and International Security who has analysed imagery of the same site from 2004 and 2005, concluded in a Sep. 29 report that it was probably a tunnel facility for a purpose other than an enrichment facility.
Brannan noted that the Qom site was only one of "many throughout the country" with similar characteristics. Contrary to the IAEA’s account, he observed that construction had continued between June 2004 and March 2005, although it was at a slow pace.
Brannan’s analysis is consistent with the account in the Iranian letter of Oct. 28 of a decision to construct a whole system of "contingency centres" for various purposes in the event of a U.S. air attack.
The Iranian letter quoted by the IAEA said Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency had requested one of the already constructed centres for a "contingency enrichment plant", which would assure continuation of enrichment should the Natanz Enrichment Plant be attacked. The Qom tunnel facility was made available for that purpose in the second half of 2007 and construction on the enrichment facility then began, according to the letter.
Contradicting the Jahn story, however, the IAEA report says "a number of Member States" have "alleged that design work on the facility had started in 2006". If design work was only started in 2006, the construction work seen in the earlier years obviously could not have been on an enrichment facility.
A senior official of the Barack Obama administration charged in the Sep. 25 briefing on the Qom site that actual construction of the facility had begun before March 2007. The language of the new report indicates for the first time that the United States has taken a much more nuanced approach to the history of the Qom site in its communications with the IAEA.
The IAEA report seems to imply that it does not believe the Iranian account that construction began on the enrichment facility only in 2007. It said the agency has "indicated that Iran’s declaration of the new facility reduces the level of confidence in the absence of other nuclear facilities under construction and gives rise to questions about whether there were any other nuclear facilities in Iran which had not been declared to the Agency."
Iran has told the IAEA it has no other nuclear facilities "currently under construction or in operation that had not been declared to the Agency", according to the report. But it has not yet responded to a Nov. 6 letter from the agency asking whether it is planning to build any other nuclear sites.
The report, which is the last to be published under outgoing Director General Mohamed ElBaradei, appears to reflect his waning influence over the agency’s political position on Iran in relation to the director of the Safeguards Department, Olli Heinonen.
After IAEA inspectors had visited the Qom site and discussed the background of its construction, ElBaradei had commented Nov. 5 that they had found "nothing to be worried about" and that the facility was indeed a backup to the Natanz plant as Iran had maintained. "It’s a hole in a mountain," ElBaradei said.
The spin in the report itself takes the opposite approach from ElBaradei’s suggestion that the Qom facility is not a threatening development.
It also appears to reflect a common Western view that treating the Qom site as evidence of a covert nuclear weapons-related program is useful to increase the pressure on Iran to reach agreement with the West to give up the bulk of its low enrichment uranium (LEU) supplies until they could be replenished through more enrichment nearly a year later.
After senior officials of the Obama administration had briefed reporters Sep. 25 on the allegation that Iran had been working on the site secretly for several years, U.S. officials said the discovery of the site would give the United States "leverage" in the talks with Iran that were to start in Geneva Oct. 1.
Western governments proposed at the Oct. 1 meeting that Iran agree to ship up to 80 percent of its LEU to Russia in return for eventual shipments of 20 percent enriched uranium to fuel a small medical reactor in Tehran. That would have allowed the Obama administration to declare a diplomatic victory in regard to Iran’s nuclear capabilities and tamp down Israeli pressures to allow it to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities.
At negotiations in Vienna last month under IAEA auspices, outgoing IAEA Director General ElBaradei presented a draft agreement based on that Western proposal. Iran has effectively rejected that deal, however, and made a counterproposal that would allow it to husband its LEU supplies.
Pres. Obama warned Iran on Sunday, "We are now running out of time," in regard to negotiations on the ElBaradei draft. The United States and other negotiating partners have ignored Iran’s counterproposal.
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.