Finding himself caught in a sudden media storm while in New York last week, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad tried to defend his government's construction of a second centrifuge facility, buried inside a mountain near the city of Qom.
Unfortunately, the Qom facility might not be the end of the story. A centrifuge plant needs feedstock, uranium hexafluoride -- a material derived from refined uranium ore and produced at a conversion plant. Iran would probably not risk trying to divert feedstock from its declared conversion plant at Esfahan, which is under the watchful eye of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Iran could therefore have also set up a clandestine conversion facility, or have succeeded in procuring the material illicitly.
Moreover, the evidence that the new facility is part of a military program is compelling. According to unclassified U.S. government talking points, the clandestine facility near Qom is "intended to hold approximately 3,000 centrifuges" of an unknown type. In 2007, Gholamreza Aghazadeh, then head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI), said that Iran's target was to have 50,000 centrifuges at its Natanz enrichment facility. This number was needed to make "meaningful amounts of nuclear fuel" for one or two commercial-scale power plants to generate electricity.
Thus, by Iran's own admission, the Qom facility is too small for civilian purposes. It is not, however, too small to produce meaningful amounts of highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapons program.
U.S. intelligence also describes the facility as being "located in an underground tunnel complex on the grounds of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Base" unknown to all but the most senior AEOI officials. Links between a supposedly civilian facility and a military organization always worry IAEA inspectors, and they should worry us too. Iran's core obligation to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it says it fully upholds, is to ensure that all its nuclear activities are exclusively for peaceful purposes -- building an underground nuclear facility on a military base certainly raises questions about Iranian intentions. Finally, because it was a clandestine plant, the Qom facility was clearly much more suited to military ends than the facility at Natanz, which is subject to IAEA monitoring.
Although the military purpose of the Qom facility is compelling, Ahmadinejad's legal arguments are not. "According to the IAEA rules, countries must inform the agency six months ahead of the gas injection in their uranium enrichment plants," he said last week. "We have done it 18 months ahead and this should be appreciated, not condemned."