It sounds like a scene from a James Bond movie. Western intelligence agents
scouring Iran for a secret nuclear site, big enough to make a bomb but small
enough to hide, identified some suspicious tunnels in a mountain complex
outside the holy city of Qom.
The complex was on a military base controlled by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary
Guard, making access highly dangerous. But through information from
satellite imagery, Iranian dissidents and other human intelligence, a
sufficiently detailed picture was built up to convince investigators that
Iran was preparing to make nuclear fuel there.
When Barack Obama was elected US president late last year he was briefed about
the covert site in a nuclear programme that would inevitably become one of
the toughest issues facing him. Instead of confrontation, he proposed
engagement, arguing that the previous policy of isolating Iran had got the
West nowhere. But as he was offering his olive branch to Tehran,
intelligence was coming in all the time from Qom.
By spring, when officials spotted movements of sensitive material into the
underground complex, it seemed the work was nearing completion.
The Iranians were preparing to operate as many as 3,000 centrifuges,
cylindrical devices that spin at high speed to enrich uranium. They were of
a type called P1 because they come from Pakistan and could produce enough
fuel each year for one small nuclear bomb.
Western intelligence officers declined to say whether the key intelligence had
come from spies, signal intercepts, overhead surveillance or a combination.
Leon Panetta, the CIA director, attributed the revelation to “inputs from
multiple intelligence disciplines” as well as assistance from Britain and
France, and the Israelis are said to have known about the plant for years.
By late spring, US officials realised the Iranians knew security had been
breached. Obama ordered a detailed dossier that he could use in negotiations
or, if need be, in enlisting the co-operation of other nations in sanctions
So began an elaborate game of poker between Washington and Tehran. Would Iran
blink first and disclose Qom to inspectors from the International Atomic
Energy Agency (IAEA) tasked with monitoring the programme or would Obama
confront them with the evidence?
US officials acknowledge there is no proof that Iran is on the verge of
creating a bomb and Tehran insists its programme is to provide nuclear
energy. But the regime’s failure to mention the Qom plant to weapons
inspectors regularly visiting the country looked on the shady side of
neglectful, to say the least.
Nor was it the first time the Iranians had been caught. In 2002, information
from a dissident group led to the exposure of its main uranium enrichment
site, an underground plant at Natanz. The same group, the National Council
of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), announced in December 2005 that tunnelling
work was being carried out to build an underground nuclear facility at Qom.
Mohammad Mohaddessin, the NCRI foreign affairs spokesman, said construction
work had been started in 2000 by a specialist engineering division of the
Revolutionary Guard. He claimed two Russian scientists were involved in
assisting Iran to hide the nuclear facilities.
The suspicion now is that Iran may have been hiding other nuclear facilities.
Apart from Natanz, it is known that there are research facilities at
Isfahan, the country’s first nuclear power plant at Bushehr, which began
testing this year, and a heavy water reactor at Arak, which could be used to
“The most logical scenario is that Iran has a completely clandestine way of
producing the highly enriched uranium and that would require, at a minimum,
a uranium conversion plant,” he said.
The NCRI even claimed to have evidence of a weaponisation programme. A
research body known by the acronym Metfaz and based on 180th Western Avenue
in the Pars district of eastern Tehran was working on trigger systems using
computerised simulation, it alleged.
THE showdown between Washington and Tehran began last week in New York, where
the American and Iranian presidents were staying just a few blocks apart —
Obama at the Waldorf-Astoria and Ahmadinejad at the Barclay — for the
opening session of the UN general assembly.
With the first direct negotiations between US and Iranian officials in 30
years due to start in Geneva this Thursday, the question for the Obama
administration was when and how to deploy the Qom discovery.
Discussions were still under way when Obama’s advisers were contacted by the
IAEA in Vienna. The agency had received a cryptic letter from the Iranians
informing it in vague terms that they were building another plant, one they
had never disclosed during years of international inspections.
The letter forced Obama’s hand. After late-night discussions on Tuesday, he
went to a scheduled meeting the next day with Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian
president, and spent half an hour briefing him. He informed Gordon Brown and
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president.
Russia signalled its potential support, believed by many to be a quid pro quo
for Obama’s decision to scrap plans for a missile defence system based in
eastern Europe. US officials say China was sceptical.
The action then shifted to Pittsburgh, where G20 leaders had moved from New
York. Friday morning began with a dramatic press conference revealing Iran’s
nuclear plant to the world. Obama appeared, flanked by Sarkozy and Brown, to
denounce the plant as “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the
He said he had withheld the intelligence because “it is very important in
these kind of high-stake situations to make sure the intelligence is right”
— a clear reference to Iraq, where the US-led coalition went to war on the
basis of faulty intelligence. Sarkozy set a deadline of two months for Iran
to meet international demands to give up their programme.
Back in New York, Ahmadinejad responded to the outcry by claiming the Qom
plant was a “semi-industrial fuel enrichment facility”. He insisted: “We
have no fears. What we did was completely legal.”
Brown described Iran’s attitude as “the serial deception of many years”,
adding that “the international community has no choice today but to draw a
line in the sand”. The question is: what will that line be?
The European Union is considering stopping all petrol exports to Iran and
further restricting shipping and air traffic to and from the country.
Possible measures include banning ships and aircraft from docking or landing
in the EU, according to German diplomats quoted in Der Spiegel. Although it
exports oil, Iran imports up to 40% of its petrol.
“Iran is on notice that when we meet them on October 1 they are going to have
to come clean and they will have to make a choice,” Obama said.
The alternative, he warned, was to “continue down a path that is going to lead
It seems unlikely that by “confrontation” the president meant military action.
Although he said that was still on the table, Robert Gates, the defence
secretary, told CNN: “The reality is there is no military option that does
anything more than buy time — the estimates are three years or so.”
Having been so badly burnt in Iraq, and with troops bogged down in
Afghanistan, hardly anyone in the West wants military action in Iran. Tehran
could cause huge problems with retaliatory action in both countries.
The view is different in Israel where Iran is viewed as a mortal threat.
Israeli defence chiefs emphasised to Air Chief MarshalSir Jock Stirrup,
chief of the defence staff, on an unpublicised visit to Israel last week,
that they had detailed plans to attack Iran if all else failed.
Yesterday Tehran was sending mixed signals. Ali Akbar Salehi, its nuclear
chief, announced that IAEA inspectors would be allowed to inspect the Qom
It was also announced that the Revolutionary Guard’s air force would start
“missile defensive war games” today and a hostile tone was struck by the
office of Ayatollah Khamenei, the supreme leader. Mohammad
Mohammadi-Golpayegani, his chief of staff, said: “This new plant, God
willing, will soon become operational and will make the enemies blind.”