Iran’s Second Enrichment Facility?

Update: The IAEA press office has just released a statement to the effect that the enrichment facility referred to in the news report is a pilot fuel enrichment facility that is now under construction. Iran informed the agency of its existence on Sept. 21, stating that enrichment will be up to 5 percent, and that no nuclear material has yet been introduced to the facility. This would call for dialing down the following post a few notches in terms of urgency, since the facility is not a fully operational one that had been kept from IAEA inspectors. But the general principles I think remain valid.

Update II: This NY Times report suggests that Iran reported the facility to the IAEA after discovering that Western intelligence had been following its construction, and that the facility is largely completed, if not yet operational. If true, the urgency of the following post, as stands, would be warranted. Stay tuned . . .

I mentioned yesterday that it’s hard to see where the “release valve” is now on the Iran nuclear impasse, given the lack of trust (on both sides) and transparency (on the Iranian side). The news that Iran has allegedly informed the IAEA of a second, previously undisclosed uranium enrichment facility only reinforces that feeling.

Anyone who might argue that this is an example of increased Iranian transparency would do well to consider that the most realistic Iranian “breakout” scenario involves just this kind of clandestine facility for the further enrichment of low-enriched uranium (3 percent purity) to weapons-grade highly enriched uranium (90 percent purity). Iran could carry out the additional enrichment at its Natanz facility, but not without advertising its intentions.

The discovery/announcement of the Natanz facility, itself initially a clandestine operation, is the cause of the current standoff. Today’s news, if confirmed (the IAEA press office wouldn’t comment on it), demonstrates that the concerns over the potential existence of other undisclosed nuclear facilities are not only reasonable but justified.

There’s been a tendency — initially provoked by mistrust of the Bush administration’s handling of pre-war Iraq intelligence and reinforced by the misinterpeted 2007 NIE on Iran’s nuclear facility — to dismiss Iran’s capacity and intentions. Specifically, there has been a conflation of the NIE’s finding of no active weaponization component with no Iranian desire for a nuclear weapon. Today’s news, if true, should be a wake-up call regarding how erroneous that assumption is.

Now this is not, as others will undoubtedly argue, a reason to forego negotiations and cut straight to the bombing campaign. But it does focus the minimum threshhold of what constitutes a desirable outcome of negotiations. That has to be the Additional Protocol — a fully transparent, intrusive IAEA inspection regime with spot access to both declared and undeclared sites. The level of Iranian obstructionism has simply abdicated any claim Tehran might have to maintaining the status quo.

In the famous formula of “intent + capacity = threat,” intent is obviously the most difficult variable to determine with certainty. In the case of Iran, even if it’s impossible to state with certainty whether or not the political decision has been taken to acquire nuclear weapons, it is clear that the Iranian regime is determined to maintain a level of ambiguity regarding intent and opaqueness regarding capacity that precludes trust.

That’s why IAEA inspections have to be given the ability to determine capacity. Anything short of that represents Iran effectively acquiring a nuclear deterrent, whether or not it possesses a warhead.

Just how far to go to prevent such an outcome is still debatable. But if that is the goal, the negotiations now have a very clear effectiveness threshhold.