Two more secret nuclear sites?

Salehi interview raises alarm concerning an order from Ahmadinejad to build plants "inside mountains."

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
March 28, 2010 19:12
Ali Akbar Salehi 298 ap

Ali Akbar Salehi 298 ap. (photo credit: )

A seemingly innocuous statement by an Iranian official has sparked a UN hunt for two new uranium enrichment plants secretly built inside mountains as part of Iran’s clandestine quest to make nuclear weapons. 

Inspectors with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, have mounted a search for the sites, the New York Times revealed over the weekend. The newspaper's sources all insisted on anonymity, given the highly-classified nature of Western satellite surveillance and on-the-ground intelligence operations to ascertain the progress of Iran's nuclear program.

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The search was reportedly triggered by a little-noticed interview with Ali Akbar Salehi, the director of of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, with the Iranian Student News Agency.

Salehi claimed that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has ordered that two plants "be built inside mountains" so as to protect them from potential military airstrikes.

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Iranian analysts have noted that the IAEA has taken on a much more active approach to Iran’s nuclear program since its former director general, Mohamed ElBaradei, handed over the reigns to Japanese diplomat Yukiya Amano. They also were skeptical of the reports, saying Iran was not as keen or capable of manufacturing nuclear weapons as the West has asserted. 

"The IAEA's stance has changed since ElBaradei left his post," Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor of Global Voices Online, told the The Media Line. "Most of ElBaradei's statements were not decisive. He would say that Iran was not cooperating but that the situation was not clear. Now the IAEA has been much more active."

The IAEA intelligence is partially based on circumstantial evidence that Iran’s newly manufactured centrifuges have not been delivered to the nuclear facilities which are monitored by international nuclear inspectors. This has raised suspicions that the centrifuges, which spin at high speeds to enrich uranium needed to produce bombs, were secretly delivered to clandestine sites.

The news of the alleged secret sites came just six months after the United States revealed the existence of a secret nuclear enrichment site inside a mountain near Qom, a city that is home to the majority of Iran's clerical establishment. Immediately after the Qom site was revealed, it was leaked that IAEA staff had privately concluded that Iran had acquired "sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device" based on highly enriched uranium.

US President Barack Obama had hoped the announcement would help raise support for a fourth round of economic sanctions against Iran, an initiative which has so far been rebuffed by China and Russia.

Iran is known to have mastered at least two of the three steps needed to effectively launch a nuclear weapon: developing a medium-range rocket capable of striking Israel and Arab nations allied with the West, and acquiring highly enriched, weapons-grade uranium. But Western intelligence agencies split on the final step, whether it is capable of developing a warhead capable of being attached to a missile.

Many Iranian analysts, however, refute the assertion that Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

"Iran doesn't have the knowledge yet to do much," Pujan Ziaie, an Iranian analyst supportive of the opposition, told The Media Line. "I'm not saying that they don't want it, and I assume that they are getting some help from Russia or China, but I don't think that at the moment their priority or policy or goals are to get nuclear weapons."

Ziaie added that the secrecy of Iran's program did not necessarily mean its goal was clandestine.

"Every country has secret sites," said Ziaie, a former strategist with the campaign for Mehdi Karroubi, a prominent reformist candidate in last year's presidential campaign and former chairman of Iran's parliament. "The Iranian government doesn't accept a number of international rules and standards, but they probably thought that if they announced these sites the Western countries would stop them and close the sites down."

Dr. Seyed Mohammad Marandi, a lecturer at the University of Teheran, argued the intense Western focus on Iran's nuclear program was much ado about nothing.

"There is nothing secret about what is going on here," he told The Media Line.

"The only reason Iran is building sites under mountains is because of direct threats made by the United States and the Israeli regime. There's no other reason the Iranians would decide to build enrichment plants inside of mountains. So in the eyes of Iranians, the sides that should be blamed are the Americans and the Israelis for making direct threats against the Iranian people," Marandi said.

He suggested that Iran was trying to "create a recognition that threats by America will no longer work."

"It's just anti-Iranian propaganda. Iran has a clean slate and is working within its obligations to the IAEA and within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Iran has never even contemplated developing nuclear weapons, over the years not a single shred of evidence has been produced to prove that Iran's nuclear program is non-peaceful, and the fact that Iran has never used or developed any weapons of mass destruction despite being the victim of American and European funded chemical weapons."

Kourosh Ziabari, an Iranian journalist and a political correspondent with Foreign Policy Journal, agreed that Iran was being unfairly singled out.

"As an Iranian citizen, I am opposed to any kind of nuclear weapon, whether they are produced in Iran, the United States or Israel," he told The Media Line. "However, I don't believe that Iran has ever had the capacity to develop nuclear weapons nor do I believe they will ever develop such a capacity. "


"American's are spreading Iranophobia and we are the victims of propaganda," Ziabari said. "Israel has over 200 nuclear warheads and North Korea has developed nuclear weapons. You don't see much attention on them. So the problem is not nuclear weapons, it's that Iran's political system is seen as not in compliance, or is not compatible, with the Western world."

"This is just a way to fill Western newspapers," Ziabari said. "What you see on TV is not what is actually happening behind the scenes. This is a meaningless skirmish between Iran and the US over a number of issues, and this conflict is being played out through the nuclear debate, which gives the US and their European allies a pretense for confrontation with Iran. So now that the election issues is over, the Western focus is back on Iran's nuclear program."

But Hamid Tehrani of Global Voices Online, maintained such arguments were evasive.

"Whatever you mention against the Iranian political establishment, from nuclear enrichment to abuses of human rights, they call propaganda against Iran," he said. "So I am not really surprised. All of Iran's nuclear activities have been revealed step step, and if you look at the last couple of years, there have been at least five UN resolutions against Iranian nuclear policy, three of which have included sanctions and been supported by Russia and China, which have extensive economic relations with Iran."


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