Hills along the Qom-Kashan Highway (photo by Hamed Saber, available at flickr) President Obama announced last Friday morning on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting that Iran has spent the last several years constructing a covert uranium enrichment facility near the Iranian city of Qom

September 28, 2009

Uranium Enrichment Facility Near Qom: Brief Background

Hills along the Qom-Kashan Highway (photo by Hamed Saber, available at flickr)

President Obama announced last Friday morning on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting that Iran has spent the last several years constructing a covert uranium enrichment facility near the Iranian city of Qom.[1] The president indicated in his statement that the U.S., U.K., and France delivered detailed evidence confirming the existence of the facility to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Thursday. Intelligence and administration officials were previously aware of the facility’s existence, for several years in some cases.[2] The series of events that led up to the announcement appears to have begun on Monday when Iranian officials sent off a vague letter to the IAEA informing it about a “new” enrichment facility, providing scant detail.  On Tuesday, IAEA officials informed Obama administration officials about the letter.[3] Administration officials, on Wednesday, provided the IAEA information on the construction and history of the facility, then, along with the U.K. and France, dispatched intelligence officials on Thursday to brief IAEA inspectors in Vienna.[4] President Obama reportedly informed Russian President Medvedev about the facility during a meeting on Wednesday and Chinese President Hu Jintao on Thursday; intelligence officials provided separate briefings for Russian and Chinese officials on Friday.[5]

An administration document containing briefing highlights on the facility provided the initial details of the enrichment site and the background on Friday’s press statement by the president.[6] The facility is located in an underground mountain complex on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base near Qom—identified as a former IRGC missile site in several reports[7]—and has been under construction for several years, according to the government document. The facility, expected to become operational in 2010, is thought to be under the management of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), “but unknown to all but the most senior AEOI officials.” The enrichment facility is being built to house 3,000 centrifuge machines—a figure that provides insight into why the site would be built in secrecy.  From the administration’s background document:

We assess an enrichment plant containing 3000 centrifuges is not adequate to produce regular fuel reloads for civilian nuclear power plants, which require a much larger number of centrifuges…Iran may claim that this facility is for civilian nuclear fuel production…Yet this facility is too small to be viable for production of fuel for a nuclear power reactor, but may be well-suited for a military purpose. 

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responded to the reports regarding the enrichment facility by saying: “We have no secrecy; we work within the framework of the IAEA…This does not mean we must inform Mr. Obama’s Administration of every facility that we have.”[8] Ahmadinejad added, speaking to reporters as President Obama was making his statement in Pittsburgh, that if Obama went through with his announcement regarding the Qom facility, it “simply adds to the list of issues to which the United States owes the Iranian nation an apology over.”[9]

Iran’s failure to inform the IAEA in advance of constructing the facility near Qom violates Iran’s obligations as understood by the IAEA. In 2003, Iran agreed to a modified agreement with the IAEA, obliging it to inform the agency of any new facility once the decision to construct one had been made.[10] In 2007, Iran communicated to the IAEA that it would suspend this modified agreement and, instead, transition back to the IAEA’s standard agreement requiring signatories to inform the IAEA of new facilities at least six months prior to supplying them with nuclear material.[11] The IAEA, however, never accepted this reversal of the modified agreement by Iran: “In accordance with Article 39 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, agreed Subsidiary Arrangements cannot be modified unilaterally; nor is there a mechanism in the Safeguards Agreement for the suspension of provisions agreed to in Subsidiary Arrangements.”[12] Iran’s failure to inform the IAEA of its intention to build the enrichment facility near Qom, which according to the administration’s intelligence was being built even prior to 2007, and its associated refusal to cease all enrichment-related activities as required by existing UNSC resolutions, stands in transparent violation of the terms of its nonproliferation obligations as outlined by the IAEA.

Reports over the weekend indicate that officials attending this week’s P5+1 talks with Iran in Geneva  will demand that inspectors be given access to the facility near Qom and to the individuals involved in the planning and construction of the facility, according to Obama administration officials.[13] Another report based on conversations with U.S. officials noted that “Iran will be told that, to avoid sanctions, it must adhere to an [IAEA] agreement that would allow inspectors to go virtually anywhere in the country to track down suspicions of nuclear work.”[14] The uncovering of the once-covert facility near Qom comes as the IAEA’s most recent report continued to highlight Iran’s lack of cooperation in addressing concerns regarding evidence of potential weapons dimensions to its nuclear program.

[1] Statement by Presidents Obama on Iran’s Nuclear Facility, September 25, 2009. Available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/the_press_office/Statements-By-President-Obama-French-President-Sarkozy-And-British-Prime-Minister-Brown-On-Iranian-Nuclear-Facility/.
[2] Siobhan Gorman, “U.S. Knew About Site for Years,” The Wall Street Journal, September 26, 2009; Laura Rozen, “Obama’s unplanned Iran news,” Politico, September 25, 2009.  Available at http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0909/27599.html.
[3] “Tehran’s Nuclear Ambitions: A Timeline,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2009.  Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/25/AR2009092503913.html.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Unclassified administration document entitled, “Public Points for Qom Disclosure,” unspecified date, available at http://www.politico.com/static/PPM41_public_points_for_qom_disclosure.html.
[7] See, for instance, Duncan Gardham, “Iranian nuclear site has been under surveillance since 2006,” Telegraph, September 25, 2009.  Available at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/middleeast/iran/6231906/Iranian-nuclear-site-has-been-under-surveillance-since-2006.html.
[8]Massimo Calabresi and Bobby Ghosh, “Ahmadinejad Reject’s Obama’s Nuclear Warning,” TIME, September 25, 2009.  Available at http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,1926169,00.html.
[9] Ibid.
[10] James Acton, “Online Discussion: Iran’s Nuclear Program,” WashingtonPost.com, September 25, 2009.   Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/discussion/2009/09/25/DI2009092501605.html.
[11] IAEA Director General, "Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement in and Relevant Provisions of Security Council Resolutions in the Islamic Republic of Iran," August 30, 2007. Available at http://www.iaea.org/Publications/Documents/Board/2007/gov2007-22.pdf. 
[12] Ibid.
[13] Glenn Kessler, “Iran pressured over new plant,” The Washington Post, September 27, 2009. 
[14] David Sanger, “US to demand inspection of Iran site,” New York Times, September 28, 2009. 
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