Iran’s Long History of Secret, Undisclosed Nuclear Facilities

Deceptions of the Mullahs that bode ill for the future.

Of all the reasons to oppose the comprehensive Obama-Kerry nuclear capitulation to Iran, the most alarming is the tenuous inspections regime the IAEA is supposed to enforce across the country-- this with a maximum of only 150 inspectors, none of them American.  By now everyone knows that Iran will legally have a full 24 days to delay the inspection of any suspicious site and clean up any incriminating documents, machines and personnel.  What is not talked about by the Obama Administration is Iran’s long history of concealment and deception of all aspects of its nuclear weapons program, including entire facilities.

This concern is particularly galling because the P5+1 powers had long insisted, before their surrender this week, on getting Iran to totally disclose its history of nuclear weapons related research, known as the “PMD issue” for possible military dimensions.  This would have fleshed out Iran’s current state of research in developing an atomic bomb.  From this detailed history going back decades, inspectors could then reconstruct, piece by piece, the true current Iranian baseline of nuclear development, not the one Iran fraudulently declared to the West.  Iranian historical declarations are critical because they set the stage for all other assessments going forward.

Unfortunately, the P5+1 powers all but completely caved on the PMD issue.  Back in 2011 the IAEA found that Iran was conducting at least 12 areas of research and construction that could only be explained by a nuclear weapons program.  But at this week’s nuclear agreement, there was no full, final, and complete declaration of Iran’s atomic bomb program, nor will there ever be.  Any new inspections will proceed in the absence of this totality of historical information and instead will rely on what Iran chooses to disclose.  

The sole Iranian “concession” is that under paragraph 14 of the agreement, inspectors from the IAEA will now follow a "road map" towards producing a report on all 12 outstanding PMDs by December of this year.  But nobody thinks that if Iran fails to comply with the “road map,” the whole agreement will become null and void.  The deal is already signed, future road map be damned.  This was why it was so important for the P5+1 powers to have a full, final and complete declaration, with all supporting documents, before any deal was signed.  Now Iran has no incentive to comply, because removal of the world’s sanctions will be implemented regardless of compliance.  The Administration signed the deal based only on Iran’s promise.

Past practices are the best guide to future behavior, and what the Islamic Republic has chosen to disclose in the past has been rather sparse.  Take Fordow.  This uranium-enrichment facility, located 20 miles from the holy Islamic city of Qom, was never disclosed anyone at all.  This nondisclosure wasn’t simply a matter of mysteriously missing research papers in some Tehran lab.  This was the matter of an entire enrichment facility being constructed and put into operation under the nose of Western intelligence agencies until September 2009, when satellites finally revealed proof of it to the world.  Iran immediately claimed (and still claims) that yes, Fordow enriches uranium, but only for cancer treatment purposes. 

But Fordow was built deep into a mountain for concealment.  It boasts a large double fence perimeter wall around the site with guard towers located every 25 meters. The buildings inside are crawling with soldiers.  The largest building is approximately 5500 square meters.  Despite only the lowest-level enrichment being needed for cancer treatment, Iran announced in 2009 that it was enriching uranium to at least 20%, which is medium-level enrichment.  That’s some cancer treatment. 

Let’s go back seven more years.  This time, in 2002, Western intelligence agencies and the IAEA were apparently caught totally unawares by the revelation of an Iranian dissident group that Iran had constructed two entire facilities: the partly underground uranium enrichment facility in Natanz and the heavy water facility in Arak.  You only need heavy water for plutonium production, and you only need plutonium for an atomic bomb.  Again, this was not a matter of suspicious lab research documents going missing.  This was two entire facilities going undeclared and unnoticed—for years.

Then there is Parchin.  Since the IAEA requested access in 2012, Iran was quick to scrub the site before letting inspectors anywhere near the place.  By scrubbing, I mean American satellites detected that "significant ground scraping and landscaping have been undertaken over an extensive area at and around the location," while five buildings were demolished and power lines, fences, and roads were removed.  The very crust of the earth was bulldozed over much, but not all, of the site.

In November 2012, the IAEA released a report noting that Iran was continuing to deny the IAEA access to the military site at Parchin.  The IAEA cited evidence from satellite imagery that "Iran constructed a large explosives containment vessel in which to conduct hydrodynamic experiments" related to nuclear weapons development.  One of the buildings had been shrouded in a huge pink tarpaulin.  Iran maintains Parchin is only a conventional military site.

In March of this very year, IAEA head Yukiya Amano announced that that Parchin “is a huge area with many buildings.” Now, he said, the IAEA thinks it has identified “the right place [in the complex] to visit,” but his access has been refused.

Which brings us to this week’s Western surrender to Iran’s demands.  Under the deal, the heavy-water facility at Arak is supposed to be “repurposed” away from producing large quantities of plutonium, whatever that means.  The fortified plant at Fordow is required to be configured for nuclear “research” instead of enrichment, but its uranium enrichment centrifuges will not be destroyed.  Iran will be allowed to continue enrichment at Natanz.  The already-scrubbed Parchin site isn’t even mentioned by the Agreement.  As said before, Iran was given a pass on the PMD issue and will not have to disclose its nuclear history in order to avoid sanctions.

In other words, to keep Iran from covertly building new hidden facilities as it had before, inspectors will have to rely exclusively on what Iran tells them—that, and satellites which can’t see inside mountains or under pink tarpaulins.  What could possibly go wrong?

------Christopher S. Carson is an attorney and holds a graduate degree in National Security Studies from Georgetown.

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