United Nations inspectors aren’t scheduled to visit Iran’s recently revealed uranium enrichment plant in Qom until October 25, but longtime observers already are worried about what they’ll find on arrival: nothing. With nearly a month to go before the inspection date, Iran will have more than enough time to remove all compromising evidence from the nuclear facility – and with it the possibility that it will be held to account for its rogue drive for a nuclear arsenal.
That helps explain why weapons’ and proliferation experts have seen Iran’s “concession” – self-servingly made only after the existence of the illegal enrichment plant had been uncovered – as something less than the significant breakthrough that it has been hailed by the Obama administration. David Albright, a former international weapons inspector, recently told the Los Angeles Times that Iran could well use the coming weeks to conceal its activities in Qom. After all, as Albright pointed out, “if you have a month, you have the time.”
It would not be the first time that the Iranian regime has tried to cover its nuclear tracks in the wake of a prominent disclosure. In August 2003, Iranian opposition groups produced satellite imagery showing the existence of an undeclared nuclear facility in Lavizan Shian, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Tehran. The disclosure prompted an investigation by the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). But Iran found a useful way to make sure no concrete evidence of nuclear enrichment was ever established: It made the site disappear.
After denying inspectors access to the facility, Iran scrambled to mask the work it had supported. By March of 2004, the Lavizan Shian plant had been razed, the on-site buildings demolished, and the rubble hauled away; even the topsoil was removed and the ground scraped clean. When IAEA inspectors finally arrived, in June of 2004, they saw only the meticulously vacant lot that the regime wanted them to see. (To view the damning “before and after” pictures of the Lavizan Shian site, click here.)
The Lavizan Shian deception is just one example of Iran’s nuclear insurance policy in action. A more recent case is the so-called Zirzamin 27 project, whose details remain a mystery, and for much the same reason. According to some accounts, this was the new location of the abandoned Lavizan Shian site. Still other reports suggest that it is a fully functional enrichment facility located underground (Zirzamin is the Farsi word for “basement”). Iran, for its part, has rejected all IAEA prodding for an explanation of the project and its scope.
Nor is it likely that the Qom facility will yield much in the way of valuable intelligence on the state of Iran’s enrichment program. Considering the country’s past history of concealment, it’s difficult to imagine that Iran would allow IAEA inspectors access to an operational pillar of its nuclear program. Indeed, it seems likely that the only reason that Iran even agreed to those inspections is because it has so little to lose: Satellite photos make the existence of the Qom facility impossible to deny, while the month-long grace period should offer Iran the convenience of sanitizing the site for the IAEA’s benefit.
None of that should obscure the fact that the Qom site is illegal – under international law, Iran must report the construction of any new nuclear facility. Meanwhile, the site’s underground construction, only hinted at by a series of tunnel entrances, leaves the clear impression that Iran wished the work underway at Qom to remain a secret. Furthering such suspicions is the fact that there have been visible attempts to cover up the most recent excavations at the Qom site, as documented in satellite photos obtained by the Institute for Science and International Security.
As if Iran’s history of cover-ups were not alarming enough, the Qom disclosure comes at a time when the IAEA, in a still unpublished report, has internally concluded that Iran now has “sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device” using enriched uranium. Of course, since the IAEA’s knowledge of Iran’s nuclear program is woefully incomplete, and since Iran’s obstructionism has prevented a more precise assessment, it’s hard to know the actual state of its progress.
What does seem apparent is that the usual approaches of thwarting Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons have not borne fruit. The UN Security Council has demanded since 2006 that Iran cease all enrichment activity, with little noticeable effect on the regime’s behavior. The fact that UN officials will be sent later this month to inspect an enrichment facility that was not permitted to exist in the first place speaks to the utter farce that the UN-led process has become. Every day that the international community is engaged in the latest round of nuclear hide-and-seek brings Iran closer to its ultimate ambition.
Against this background, President Obama’s assurance that the latest round of inspections constitutes a “constructive beginning” in negotiations with Iran must be seen as an act of historical revision. After years of defying international law in pursuit of its nuclear program, Iran is right back were it started. And its nuclear program moves further ahead.