February 22, 2012

It's No 'Potemkin' Nuclear Enrichment Plant

Originally published in The Weekly Standard Blog

An unnamed senior U.S. official responded to a report that Iran is building out the Fordow enrichment plant by describing the facility “as a ‘Potemkin’ plant, a façade that could not operate and was under close watch by the International Atomic Energy Agency,” according to NBC News. That characterization is grossly misleading.

Iran has accelerated its uranium enrichment activities at the Fordow facility, the once covert site buried into a small mountain outside of Qom, since the last IAEA report that detailed the regime’s weaponization work. It began producing uranium enriched to 20 percent there earlier this year, according to the IAEA, and now has the infrastructure to install and operate advanced centrifuges. These developments will, in fact, further reduce the time Iran would need to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon and accelerate the stockpiling of higher-enriched material. And while the IAEA has some access to the facility, its inspections regime in Iran is imperfect and vulnerable to manipulation, partly due to Iran’s refusal to implement the Additional Protocol agreement it signed in December 2003.

It would be a welcome relief if the Fordow facility was indeed a non-threatening Potemkin plant and if the IAEA had unfettered access and insight into the program along with an airtight inspections regime that could help prevent the emergence of a nuclear weapons-capable Iran. Unfortunately, the reality that must be confronted is much more complicated and dangerous.