Iran: the Significance of a Second Site
In a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran has admitted the existence of a second uranium enrichment facility. The Iranians are masters of denial and deception, which only exacerbates the intelligence challenge faced by Israel and the United States in drawing up military contingencies against
Iran has revealed the existence of a second uranium enrichment facility in a letter sent to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), according to a Sept. 25 statement by IAEA spokesman Marc Vidricaire. Vidricaire said that Iran sent the letter with information on the site on Sept. 21.
This second nuclear facility is allegedly located on a military base in Iran’s holy city of Qom and is believed to house 3,000 centrifuges, while some reports claim the facility is still under construction. What most people do not realize is that it requires far fewer centrifuges to operate a small military weapons program in comparison to a civilian power program. A single facility such as the well-known and yet-to-be-operational Bushehr site uses hundreds of tons of nuclear fuel every year, but it requires less than 100 pounds of highly enriched uranium to make an explosive device. In short, the precision of the centrifuges must be of better quality for the weapons program (an acute problem for the Iranians), but the number of centrifuges required is far fewer — particularly if the goal is to have only a handful of nuclear devices.
U.S. and French intelligence claim to have known about this Qom facility for “several months.” Iran allegedly revealed the location of the site after it learned it had already been exposed. On its surface, this was a relatively hollow confession made by the Iranians, but the revelation of a second enrichment facility has far-reaching consequences.
The Iranians are masters of denial and deception, and it should surprise no one that Tehran has played a shell game in concealing the critical nodes of its nuclear program. If French and U.S. intelligence knew about this facility only for “several months” as claimed, it represents a massive intelligence failure (these facilities cannot be quickly built). This has always been the crux of the challenge in any military plans drawn up against Iran. Massive air campaigns can be waged, but the effectiveness of those air campaigns is contingent on two things: the intelligence on the targets (in this case, the nuclear facilities) and the ability of the air force to strike at those targets (particularly the ability to destroy hardened and deeply buried facilities).
The addition of a target can dramatically upset the contingency plans in place for military strikes against Iran. The new intelligence increases the number of attack aircraft required, the number of sorties the aircraft must fly, the number of tankers required, the amount of time needed for reconnaissance missions, the number of special operations forces needed for ground reconnaissance and the number and extent of air-defense suppression missions. And even in re-evaluating the intelligence and military plans, a glaring question remains: How many other critical facilities are unknown to Western and Israeli intelligence agencies? Moreover, knowing that Iran is well-versed in deception techniques, how many of the facilities are in fact dummy sites designed to throw Iran’s adversaries off base? This is the ultimate gamble.
Iran knew exactly what it was doing in sending this letter to the IAEA ahead of the P-5+1 talks on Oct. 1. In revealing the extent of its nuclear denial and deception campaign, Iran is only adding to the uncertainty surrounding Western and Israeli intelligence on the Iranian nuclear program. The more wrong Iran can make the intelligence of its adversaries appear, the more it hopes to be able to deter an attack.
However, the revelation of the second site may well have the opposite effect.
U.S. President Barack Obama, joined by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, issued a stern warning the morning of Sept. 25 for Iran to come clean on the rest of its nuclear program in the upcoming P-5+1 talks. Obama’s tone was clearly more forceful than it has been in addressing the Iranian issue. This comes as little surprise considering the amount of pressure Israel is applying on Washington to act decisively against the Iranians. Israel is thus far not satisfied with the level of cooperation Iran has offered, and it used the U.N. General Assembly meeting to deliver a message to Iran and the international community that Israel would do whatever is necessary to protect its national interests.
The gloves are coming off, but it was really only a matter of time.