According to a recent article by the New York Times, Western intelligence agencies and international inspectors now “suspect that Tehran is preparing to build more [enrichment] sites”. This revelation, according to the newspaper, comes at a “crucial moment in the White House’s attempts to impose tough new sanctions against Iran.”
However, these “suspicions” come months after Iran publicly disclosed such intentions. Tehran declared plans to build 10 additional sites on 29 November 2009, a couple of days after an IAEA Board of Governors resolution called on Tehran to confirm that it had “not taken a decision to construct, or authorize construction of, any other nuclear facility” and suspend enrichment in accordance with UN Security Council resolutions.
At the time, the Iran’s decision to construct more enrichment sites was widely dismissed in the West as an act of defiance and unlikely more than mere bravado. On 30 November 2009 the New York Times wrote that “it [was] doubtful Iran could execute that plan for years, maybe decades”. The same article referred to a high-ranking Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) official claiming that taking the declaration seriously was “akin to believing in the tooth fairy” and that this effort would likely produce “‘one small plant somewhere that they’re not going to tell us about’ and be military in nature.”
In fact, a week before Iran’s original announcement, Ivan Oelrich and I argued in an article at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that Fordow is likely one of many similar sites. A technical analysis of the facility’s planned capacity showed that, alone, it was not well-suited for either a commercial or a military function. The facility’s low capacity also undermined other strategic roles suggested by official and quasi-official Iranian sources – that Fordow is a contingency plant in case Natanz were attacked or that Fordow was even meant to deter an attack on Natanz.
Consequently, we have argued that Iran’s decision to construct additional enrichment facilities is a logical consequence of Fordow’s small enrichment capacity. The plant, as currently designed, makes sense only if separative capacity is increased in the future, which can be done either by increasing per centrifuge performance or by adding more centrifuges. We believe, therefore, that Iran’s declarations to construct new enrichment sites should be taken seriously.
Now that we have indications for a future increase in capacity, what does this tell us about Iranian intentions? Commercial, military and, strategic justifications all become more plausible, but not by the same degree. Dispersing enrichment facilities and hardening them against attack is costly and raises suspicions that the plants are really intended as part of a weapons program. But this may not be the case. (For a more comprehensive analysis, see our article in the March issue of Nuclear Engineering International.)
First, any economic rationale of Iran’s enrichment program is suspect. Natanz may have a civilian role, but it is definitely not the most economically viable course, but it may be a price that they are willing to pay for energy security. By the same token, building many enrichment plants and protecting them against attack may be the cost that Tehran is willing to pay for insurance.
Second, multiple well-protected enrichment facilities could provide a secure backup to Natanz. This would reduce the risk of attack on the main plant since bomb-grade enrichment could take place elsewhere. However, since Natanz would be targeted because of its military, not civilian potential, the new sites would have to be able to mimic only those military capabilities. To be a viable deterrent, the new sites together would require a capacity big enough for a quick breakout option.
Third, since Iran has publicly declared its intentions to build additional enrichment facilities, they will eventually be placed under IAEA safeguards. (The sites would most likely be formally disclosed to the Agency in accordance with Iran’s own interpretation of Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement, or as little as 6 months before nuclear material enters the premises.) If the facilities are under IAEA watch, the onsite production of bomb-grade uranium or the diversion of nuclear material to a clandestine enrichment plant for further enrichment would not go undetected. This means that using the sites as part of a nuclear weapons program would likely have to be done overtly, thus making this option less likely.
Do not be mistaken – construction of the sites would increase Iranian breakout potential since Iran’s total uranium enrichment capacity would be expanded. Dispersion and hardening also creates targeting issues for a possible Israeli military attack. Iran’s decision to announce plans to construct 10 new facilities means that, if the enrichment plants are built, the nature of the breakout threat shifts from bomb-grade enrichment at a possible clandestine enrichment plant to rapid breakout at existing sites after an international crisis, which leads to expelling IAEA inspectors.
Construction of new enrichment facilities was underplayed in November 2009 but seems to have become a realistic and troubling concern now, increasing suspicion in both the IAEA and national intelligence agencies. What has changed since?
It turns out that not much. Intelligence agencies have long been looking for clandestine enrichment sites. After the sudden disclosure of the small, heavily guarded Fordow enrichment plant, the IAEA has been especially concerned with the existence of similar still undisclosed facilities. The November 2009 report noted that the agency had called on Iran to declare whether it was constructing or planning on constructing any additional nuclear sites. Iran has kept boasting about plans to construct new enrichment plants, starting with 2 facilities this year.
What indeed has changed is that Obama’s deadline for engagement has passed and, since the beginning of this year, the US has been trying to rally support for new tougher sanctions. I am not arguing for or against sanctions, but we need to be making consistent assumptions. Iran’s planned 10 new enrichment sites cannot be both an extremely dangerous development and a a figment of Iranian boasting.