US threats prompted Iran nuclear facility
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - The administration of United States President Barack Obama claims
that construction of a second Iranian uranium enrichment facility at Qom began
before Tehran's decision to withdraw from a previous agreement to inform the
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in advance of such construction. But
the November 2007 US intelligence estimate on Iran's nuclear program tells a
The Iranian decision to withdraw from the earlier agreement with the IAEA was
prompted, moreover, by the campaign of threats to Iran's nuclear facilities
mounted by the George W Bush administration in early 2007, as a reconstruction
of the sequence of events shows.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on
September 25 said, "We know construction of the facility began even before the
Iranians unilaterally said they did not feel bound by that [IAEA] obligation."
The US intelligence assessment of the period, however, makes it clear that Iran
did not begin construction on the Qom enrichment facility until long after its
public change of policy on informing the IAEA.
The published key judgments of the November 2007 National Intelligence Estimate
(NIE) on Iran's nuclear program contained a little-noticed statement that the
intelligence community judged that Iran's "covert" uranium conversion and
enrichment activity had "probably been halted in response to the fall 2003
halt", and "probably had not been restarted through at least mid-2007".
That clearly implied that US intelligence had found no evidence of any
undeclared covert enrichment facility.
An intelligence source familiar with the text of the full unpublished NIE has
confirmed to Inter Press Service that the estimate does not refer to any
evidence of a second enrichment site, even though it discussed the central
importance of covert enrichment in any Iranian nuclear breakout scenario.
The estimate made no mention of such evidence, despite the highly publicized
fact that that the Qom site was one of many that were under constant
surveillance by US intelligence because of the tunneling system already dug
into the side of the mountain.
Despite the claim that construction on the Qom facility began before April
2007, the senior administration official conceded in the September 25 briefing
that it was only in early 2009 that US intelligence had seen construction
activity consistent with an enrichment facility.
That is consistent with the statement by the Iranian vice president and head of
the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Al Akbar Salehi, that his agency took
over a military ammunition dump in 2008 and only then began construction on an
The Iranian decision to withdraw from the "subsidiary agreement" to which it
had agreed in February 2003 requiring it to inform the IAEA of any new nuclear
facilities as soon as the construction decision was made occurred in the
context of a series of moves by the Bush administration to convince Iran that
an attack on its nuclear facilities was a serious possibility.
In December 2006, major US news media reported that a second US carrier task
group was being sent to the Persian Gulf to send a message to Iran.
The US campaign of threats intensified in January, when Bush accused Iran and
Syria of "allowing terrorists and insurgents to use their territory to move in
and out of Iraq" and charged Iran was "providing material support for attacks
on American troops". That formulation appeared to be aimed at establishing a
legal basis for an eventual US attack on Iranian territory.
The Guardian reported on January 31, 2007, "Senior European policy-makers are
increasingly worried that the US administration will resort to air attacks
against Iran to try to destroy its suspect nuclear program."
Then the Washington Post reported on February 11 that a foreign diplomat had
been told by then-vice president Dick Cheney's national security adviser, John
Hannah, that a US attack on Iran was "a real possibility" in 2007.
A few days later, Newsweek reported that it was "likely" a third carrier task
group would overlap for a period of months with the two existing task forces.
The story recalled that the presence of three carrier task groups in the Gulf
simultaneously was the same level of US striking power as the administration
had in place during the air campaign against Iraq in 2003.
Finally, on March 27, the US began a naval exercise in the Gulf involving both
aircraft carriers and a dozen more warships already in the Gulf, along with
about 100 aircraft. The exercise, which took several days to complete, was the
first joint naval and air operation since the air campaign against Saddam
A front-page article in the New York Times called it a "calculated show of
force" that was "part of a broader strategy to contain Iranian power in the
Just two days later, on March 29, Iran notified the IAEA that it was suspending
its implementation of the modified version of its "subsidiary arrangement" with
the IAEA, signed in February 2003, which required that it provide "preliminary
design information" to the agency as soon as the decision to construct a
nuclear facility had been taken.
Instead, Iran said, it was reverting to its commitment under the older version
of the subsidiary arrangement. That called for Iran to inform the agency of any
new nuclear facility no less than 180 days before the introduction of nuclear
material into the facility.
Iran was evidently determined to leave no ambiguity about why it was making
that change. On April 3, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major
General Hassan Firoozabadi, predicted publicly that the US and Israel would
launch a massive attack on the region that summer.
That same day, Hamidreza Taraghi, the international affairs chief of the
Islamic Coalition Party, which was part of the pro-government coalition of the
conservative parties, explicitly linked the Iranian shift on its IAEA agreement
with the heightened threat from the US military.
United States military deployments in the Persian Gulf were "very similar to
those before the Iraq invasion", said Taraghi, and therefore "We should not
volunteer information regarding our nuclear sites, as they may be misused by
Taraghi was referring to the fact that any design information on Iranian
nuclear facilities would help the US and Israeli air forces prepare for an
attack on those targets.
On April 13, Iran sent another letter to the IAEA rejecting the agency's right
to verify design information previously provided on the IR-40 heavy water
reactor at Arak.
The sequence of events surrounding the Iranian policy change and the subsequent
beginning of construction on a second enrichment facility suggests that Iran
was hedging its bets against a US air attack, while retaining the obligation to
provide detailed information six months before the introduction of nuclear
material - if the threat of an attack were to subside.
The Iranian decision to inform the IAEA of the existence of the Qom site in
September appears to reflect a much lower perception of a threat of a US attack
compared with the perception in early 2007.
News coverage of the Qom site was dominated by the story told by the senior US
official at the September 25 briefing that Iran had decided to inform the IAEA
of the Qom site on September 21 only because it knew the site had been
discovered by US intelligence.
In fact, however, US intelligence was in the dark about why Iran had done so.
An unclassified set of questions and answers on the Qom enrichment facility
issued by the US government the same day as the press briefing, and later
published on the website of the Institute for Science and International
Security, included the following:
Q: Why did the Iranians decide to reveal this facility at this
A: We do not know.
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.