Warning: Even more speculative than usual.

The Iranian government has spoken: in response to the the rebuke contained in Friday’s IAEA Board of Governors resolution, Iran has defiantly announced that it will build another ten enrichment facilities:

“We had no plan to build many nuclear sites like [enrichment facility in the central city of] Natanz but it seems that the West do not want to comprehend Iran’s message of peace,” Head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Ali-Akbar Salehi said.

“The West adopted an attitude toward Iran which made the Iranian government to pass the ratification on construction of ten sites similar to the Natanz enrichment facility,” he added.

Very broadly speaking, this is the sort of escalation that many of us (including yours truly) had expected. But matters may not be as simple as they seem. There is another set of possibilities.

A Good News Story in Clever Disguise?

Recall the immediate context: a dispute between Iran and the IAEA about Iran’s obligation to report its decisions to establish new nuclear facilities. The Director-General’s last report to the BoG expressed suspicion about whether there were additional facilities yet to be declared:

14. The Agency further indicated that it still had questions about the purpose for which the facility [at Qom] had been intended and how it fit into Iran’s nuclear programme. The Agency also 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.

This mistrust ran so deep that even after the Iranian side denied having additional facilities, the IAEA followed up with a letter asking, in effect, “Are you sure? Is that your final answer?”

16. Iran stated that it did not have any other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not yet been declared to the Agency. Iran also stated that any such future facilities would “be reported to the Agency according to Iran’s obligations to the Agency”. In a letter dated 6 November 2009, the Agency asked Iran to confirm that it had not taken a decision to construct, or to authorize construction of, any other nuclear facility which had not been declared to the Agency.

That’s where matters stood on November 16, the date of the report. Friday’s BoG resolution appealed to the Iranians to respond to the letter:

5. [The Board of Governors] Calls on Iran to confirm, as requested by the Agency, that Iran has not taken a decision to construct, or authorize construction of, any other nuclear facility which has as yet not been declared to the Agency;

Well, now we have an answer to that appeal, after a fashion:

Upon the Iranian government’s decree, the AEO should begin the construction of five of the enrichment facilities over the next two months.

It should also propose locations for the remaining five enrichment plants within a two-month period.

“We have determined the location of five sites upon the president’s decree. Our enrichment sites will be constructed in the heart of mountains,” Salehi said.

Press statements are not the same thing as formal notifications, but the notifications should be arriving in Vienna shortly, if they haven’t already. If five sites really have already been selected, then undeclared plans to build them have been in place for awhile. Judging by how the Iranian side has framed its activities at Qom, construction may already have been underway for some time.

One way to see it, then, is that the Iranian side has seized the opportunity to get tough by coming clean, or to come clean by getting tough. In the two-level game of international diplomacy and Iranian domestic politics, this sort of Janus-faced response may be as close to a win-win outcome as ever happens.

How Many Enrichment Sites?

Not entirely by coincidence, the question of how many Qom-like enrichment sites Iran may have planned has been the subject of some wonk-jousting lately. Writing at the Bulletin, Ivan Oelrich and Ivanka Barzashka of FAS find Qom — which is due to hold 3,000 IR-1 centrifuges — too small to serve as a standalone HEU factory. They judge Qom (a.k.a Fordow) to be capable of producing roughly enough HEU for a bomb once every four years once it is at full capacity. This underscores the possibility “that Iran has a number of similar secret facilities—along with the required uranium hexafluoride conversion plants—and that Fordow is simply the only one to have been discovered… It also is possible that Fordow was the first of several planned secret facilities, and that, with its discovery, Iran has put further plans on hold.”

(This perspective appears close to the views of Gary Milhollin and Valerie Lincy of the Wisconsin Project.)

David Albright and Paul Brannan of ISIS dispute this view, judging Qom at full capacity to be capable of producing enough HEU for one to two bombs every year, depending on how capable the IR-1 machines really are. (Earlier this year, Ali Akbar Salehi put the figure at 2.1 kg SWU.)

Oelrich and Barzashka do not specify their assumptions, but may be using a SWU figure that is too low. Going by their previous analysis, they also may be using a 25 kg HEU figure per bomb, which is almost certainly too high. So on the narrow question of Qom’s potential, put me in the ISIS camp.

Whether Iran has been planning or preparing more hidden enrichment plants and other fuel cycle facilities is a separate question, though. We’ll probably have a better understanding in the coming weeks and months.

Why Was the IAEA So Insistent?

I don’t know, but my guess is, the IAEA Secretariat and the P5+1 knew something, and were hinting to the Iranians that they ought to come clean voluntarily, before the end of the year. After all, according to a story that appeared in the New York Times earlier this fall, the November 2007 NIE “listed more than a dozen suspect locations” in Iran. So the Intelligence Community seems to have had some pretty good leads for awhile now.

Recall that some of the more intriguing passages in the Key Judgments of the NIE relate to covert sites. The NIE defined “nuclear weapons program” — the thing it judged to have stopped in Iran in late 2003 — as “nuclear weapon design and weaponization work and covert uranium conversion-related and uranium enrichment-related work.” (Emphasis added.)

“Work,” in this context, presumably includes the planning and construction of facilities. Was that work resumed by the time that the NIE was issued? The answer is hedged: “We assess with moderate confidence Tehran had not restarted its nuclear weapons program as of mid-2007.” (Emphasis added.)

Finally, the Key Judgments include a view, also hedged, that Iran would return to building covert uranium conversion and enrichment facilities if it were to decide to produce HEU for weapons:

We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities—rather than its declared nuclear sites—for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon. A growing amount of intelligence indicates Iran was engaged in covert uranium conversion and uranium enrichment activity, but we judge that these efforts probably were halted in response to the fall 2003 halt, and that these efforts probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007. [Emphasis added.]

If Qom is any example, the doubts expressed in the NIE had less to do with not knowing the whereabouts of the covert facilities, and more to do with doubts about the exact purposes of the facilities under observation. On that point, we might infer from the recent IAEA report and BoG resolution that there has been less doubt lately.

Viewed in this light, Iran’s “defiant” disclosure might be a voluntary foreclosure of its ability — probably already compromised — to use a network of covert sites to build the Bomb. If that’s so, then intelligence has secured some of the margin of security that negotiations seemingly could not.