Last Thursday, Alireza Jafarzadeh of NCRI fame held one of his trademark press conferences to announce the discovery of a hidden Iranian enrichment facility, near Qazvin, to the assembled news media. The AEOI — the Iranian nuclear authority — has denied the claim. The reaction from Washington, too, has been cool.
An unnamed U.S. official told Reuters:
“This facility has been under construction for years, and we’ve known about it for years. While there’s still some ambiguity about its ultimate purpose — not unusual for something that’s still taking shape — there’s no reason at this point to think it’s nuclear,” the official said.
“The Iranians put military stuff in tunnels, too. People should be cautious about reaching conclusions here.”
For those who have been following the subject closely enough, this judgment won’t come as news. A report last month in the New York Times stated that “after detailed surveys, and interviews with defectors, officials say they have no evidence a second such facility [after the Qom enrichment plant] is under construction.”
But here’s the striking part: the AEOI also declared last month that it has, in fact, selected sites for several new enrichment plants, and will soon start construction at one of them. This announcement echoed a similar statement from November 2009.
If the pattern is anything like Qom, construction at the site actually will have been underway for years already, but the AEOI will have considered it “general-purpose” until “allocating” it for use as a centrifuge facility, in keeping with Iran’s unilateral reinterpretation of when it is obliged to declare new facilities to the IAEA. According to a report in September 2009, the U.S. intelligence community had been watching “more than a dozen suspect locations” for years, as of the 2007 NIE. The Qazvin site, which Jafarzadeh dates back to 2005, is presumably on that list.
Thus, as the U.S. official puts it, “there’s no reason at this point to think it’s nuclear.”
Catch Me If You Can
AEOI Chairman Salehi’s announcements of future centrifuge facilities at unspecified locations serve several purposes. Most obviously, they signal defiance to the Iranian public and put pressure on the West to accept the permanence of the enrichment program. But they also set up a game of 16-Cascade Monte. By creating multiple empty tunnel sites, the Iranians have set out to complicate the intelligence picture as much as possible. And if, as in the case of Qom, the Iranians are caught quietly outfitting one of these sites as a centrifuge plant, then they’ll just point back to Salehi’s press statements and claim again that they don’t need to declare the site to the IAEA until about 180 days before introducing nuclear material. (Abraham Lincoln once said something about this.) Thus exposed, the facility will lose its value to the Iranian nuclear program, but perhaps without causing as much harm to the program’s fortunes as it otherwise would have.
(An aside: This is by no means the first time that Jafarzadeh has unveiled an alleged enrichment site. As far back as 2005, the NCRI claimed to have spotted an underground laser enrichment facility. They publicized what they considered another laser facility in 2006; there may have been other occasions as well. Since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad announced a new laser enrichment program earlier this year, perhaps Jafarzadeh & Co. were onto something on one or both of these occasions. Contrary to a popular misconception, though, the NCRI did not identify Natanz as an enrichment site.)
Update. Two things. I overlooked Paul Kerr’s earlier take on the NCRI and Natanz. And I completely forgot about NCRI’s role in publicizing the “Kalaye Electric” centrifuge site in February 2003. I’m not certain if it was the first public reference anywhere, but the IAEA cited “information in open sources” in a meeting with the Iranians just a day or two after this release.