|New doubt on US's Iran plant claim
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - An Iranian assertion that construction on its second
uranium-enrichment facility began only last year and further analysis of
satellite photos of the site have cast fresh doubts on the Barack Obama
administration's charge that the construction of the plant near the holy city
of Qom involved a covert decision to violate Iran's obligations to report
immediately to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on any decision to
build a new facility.
At a September 25 briefing on the site, senior administration officials refused
to provide any specific information to back up the claim that construction had
begun before the March 2007 Iranian withdrawal from an agreement requiring that
it inform the IAEA
immediately of any decision to build a nuclear facility.
The US charges on the Qom facility, coming a week before the first opportunity
for negotiations with Iran on a full range of issues since 1981, appear to have
been a deliberate ploy to make the Obama administration appear tough and on the
offensive when the talks started.
Iran's Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the head of Iran's Atomic
Energy Organization, told a news conference last Tuesday that his agency took
over a military ammunition dump in 2008 to begin work on the enrichment
facility near Qom.
Meanwhile, a new photo analysis by the Washington-based Institute for Science
and International Security (ISIS) of the Qom site in 2004 and 2005 suggests it
was not dedicated to building a uranium-enrichment facility at that time.
In a brief analysis posted on the ISIS webpage last Tuesday, Paul Brannan, a
specialist in interpreting satellite photography at ISIS, said he believed that
the site on which the Qom enrichment facility was later constructed was
"originally a tunnel facility associated with Iran's military" rather than a
"construction site for a uranium plant".
Brannan wrote that there was evidence of some construction between June 2004
and March 2005, but that the pace appeared "slow". That tunneling activity,
Brannan wrote, "may not have been originally associated with the later
construction activity for the suspected uranium enrichment site".
Brannan told Inter Press Service it is "technically possible" that the
relatively slight changes he saw from 2004 to 2005 were associated with the
enrichment facility, but said the images of the site at that stage appear
similar to many other tunnel facilities built into a mountain that are
maintained by the Iranian military.
"The Iranian military has hundreds of these around Iran," Brannan said.
Brannan said he is now in the process of obtaining satellite imagery for 2006
through 2008 in order to establish more clearly when the construction on the
In his press conference, Salehi described the second enrichment facility as "a
small version of Natanz" - Iran's large-scale commercial enrichment plant - and
explained it as a measure aimed at ensuring the continuity of the program if
its nuclear sites were attacked.
If construction on the Qom site did not begin until 2008, as Salehi claimed, it
would have been long after Iran had withdrawn from an agreement with the IAEA -
the so-called "modified Code 3.1" - obligating it to report design information
on nuclear facilities as soon as the decision is made.
That would further suggest that Iran is serious about remaining in compliance
with its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement.
Iran notified the IAEA in March 2007 that it intended to revert to the earlier
version of the "Code 3.1" subsidiary arrangement with the agency, which
obligated it to provide design information at least 180 days before
introduction of nuclear material into the facility. Subsidiary arrangements are
codicils to the safeguards agreement - the document that defines the basic
transparency and other obligations of each IAEA member state.
In a briefing for reporters last week a "senior administration official"
asserted that Iran had begun construction on the Qom enrichment facility "with
the intent that it be secret", thus giving Iran "an option of producing
weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it".
A key element of that charge was that Iran had violated the "modified Code 3.1"
agreement at the very time it had been ostensibly implementing that agreement.
"We know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians
unilaterally said they did not feel bound by that obligation," the official
But the briefing official seemed to confirm the conclusion of the ISIS analysis
of the satellite imagery by suggesting that the site was considered as an
enrichment site even though there was evidence that it had a different
function. "[A]t a very early stage of construction," the official said, "a
facility like this could have multiple uses."
There were other hints as well that the US charge was not based on visual
evidence of construction but on the supposition that the site was intended for
the enrichment facility, even though little or no construction was actually
"[W]e wanted to wait until the actual construction caught up with that intent,"
said the official at one point.
The unnamed senior official declined on three different occasions during the
briefing to answer questions on when construction on the facility had started.
When a reporter asked directly, "Do you have a clear idea of when the
construction started?" the official flatly refused to answer. The official also
refused to answer when asked if the construction was started before President
Mahmud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005.
The official also said, "These kinds of things are always a matter of degree."
If the satellite imagery for 2006, 2007 and 2008 shows that construction did
not begin until after the Iranian withdrawal from its commitment to modified
Code 3.1, it would provide new evidence that Iran intended to remain within the
letter of its safeguards agreement and was not planning a covert enrichment
Obama called the second enrichment facility "a direct challenge to the basic
foundation of the non-proliferation regime", saying Iran had broken "rules that
all nations must follow".
Outgoing IAEA director general Mohamed ElBaradei declared in New Delhi last
Wednesday that Iran is "on the wrong side of the law ... insofar as informing
the agency about the construction".
Although it has remained unreported in the news media, Iran has a legal case
that it has remained in compliance with its safeguards agreement.
In March 2009, the director of the IAEA Office of Legal Affairs, Johan
Rautenbach, called Iran's reversion to implementation of the earlier version of
the Code 3.1 "inconsistent with its obligations under the subsidiary
But he went on to say that it was "difficult to conclude that providing
information in accordance with the earlier formulation in itself constitutes
non-compliance with, or a breach of, the safeguards agreement as such."
The safeguards agreement itself clearly forbids unilateral "modification" of a
subsidiary arrangement, but it says nothing about withdrawal from such an
agreement, which is what Iran is asserting it did in March 2007.
The distinction between "modification" and "withdrawal" from provisions of an
international agreement is well established in the Vienna Convention on the Law
Unilateral withdrawal is permitted under that convention, provided that the
provision in question is separable from the remainder of the agreement, is not
the essential basis of consent by the other party and continued performance of
the remainder of the agreement would not be "unjust".
The head of the IAEA legal department appears to have accepted that those three
conditions applied to the case of Iran's "Modified Code 3.1" agreement.
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing
in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book,
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in 2006.
(Inter Press Service)
All material on this
website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written
© Copyright 1999 - 2009 Asia Times
Online (Holdings), Ltd.
Office: Unit B, 16/F, Li Dong Building, No. 9 Li Yuen Street East,
Central, Hong Kong
11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110