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The Significance of Iran's 'Secret' Nuclear Plant

Interviewee: Michael A. Levi, David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment and Director of the Program on Energy Security and Climate Change
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
September 25, 2009

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The disclosure on September 25 that Iran has been secretly building a second uranium enrichment plant near the city of Qom is raising fresh concerns over Iran's intentions for its nuclear program. CFR's Michael A. Levi, an expert on Iranian nuclear developments, says the latest development "shows that Iran is still willing to try to create covert facilities that could be used to make a nuclear weapon, either entirely in secret, or so much in secret that by the time we find out what's going on, it's too late to respond effectively."  Levi says that "the bottom-line significance is that this shows Iran's willingness to hide" its nuclear plans and raises the likelihood of more severe sanctions if forthcoming negotiations do not produce good results.

Everyone woke up this morning to news that Iran has been clandestinely building a second nuclear uranium enrichment plant near the holy city of Qom.  Today in Pittsburgh before the G20 meeting started, President Obama, French President Sarkozy and British Prime Minister Brown all blasted Iran for its clandestine activities. What's the significance of this?

It shows that Iran is still willing to try to create covert facilities that could be used to make a nuclear weapon, either entirely in secret, or so much in secret that by the time we find out what's going on, it's too late to respond effectively.

This is an important development. It's been played quite well by the United States and its allies.

It will, of course, be used as fodder by those who think that yesterday's United Nations Security Council session on non-proliferation was just talk and show when the real problems are in cracking down on tough states like Iran and North Korea. The Obama administration will respond that we need a multi-pronged approach, and that a more solid foundation at the UN helps us pursue these individual problems more effectively. But it does reemphasize that the big immediate problems when it comes to the nonproliferation regime have to do with specific cases of noncompliance and of potential nuclear weapons development.

The great concern of the Western countries and other countries, as well, is that Iran is doing all this nuclear enrichment not so much to build a nuclear power plant, which is its public position, but to have the wherewithal to quickly build nuclear weapons. Does this increase that possibility?

This simply is not plausible as a plant for producing material for a civilian program.

This plant has no value for a civilian nuclear program. Its capacity is simply too small to add significantly to Iran's ability to make fuel for a reactor. It is, however, well-sized to help Iran move quickly from nuclear material to highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb. We're talking about three thousand centrifuges [Groups of large, spinning tubes that enrich uranium] here. If Iran used natural uranium it would take about a year to enrich it with this many centrifuges to bomb grade.  If Iran was able somehow to divert some of its low enriched uranium that it has produced at the Natanz facility, it would take substantially less time, on the order of months for it to move that to bomb grade.

Is it Iran or the Western countries saying that there are three thousand new centrifuges? And are these the more recent P-2 centrifuges, or the old P-1's? The "P" of course stands for Pakistan-developed, by A.Q. Khan.

We don't have information on these sorts of details yet. And that will affect some of the analysis on how quickly the facility could be used to make material for nuclear weapons. Regardless, the bottom-line significance is that this shows Iran's willingness to hide. It also, by the way, emphasizes the importance of having an Additional Protocol [a legal document granting International Atomic Energy Agency greater inspection authority] in place.  Under the current rule, Iran technically wasn't required to report this facility so long as it hasn't introduced uranium into it.  If Iran was following the Additional Protocol, it would be required to report new facilities. Of course it could still cheat.  That's another layer and another level of clarity for the international community.

I would like to get at why you think Iran kept this plant secret, if its ostensible purpose is to produce low-enriched uranium for nuclear power plants.  Were they keeping it secret because they really had a more nefarious plan in mind?

That's the most obvious conclusion.  This simply is not plausible as a plant for producing material for a civilian program. Now the Iranians say that this is a pilot plant, which means that it would somehow lead to a much larger plant later. I suspect they may argue that they wanted to test more advanced centrifuges, and that had they done that openly it would have raised unjustified objections from the rest of the world but I think there will be a lot of investigation into this, and it will be interesting to see-if Iran does allow international inspection soon-what the connections are for this plant.  It's always been important in looking at the Iranian nuclear program not to only look at the physical relationships and realities, but the institutional relationships surrounding the different facilities: who is it connected to? That tells us more about what its purpose might be.

All this is against the background of the fact that on October 1, the United States and the other four veto-holding members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany are supposed to sit down with Iran to discuss Iran's proposal for negotiations, which touches on everything, with the goal of eventually getting Iran to agree to suspend its nuclear enrichment program. What do you think this disclosure does for these negotiations?

Anytime we think about particularly harsh sanctions, there's a double calculation: one on pressuring the Iranian government on the nuclear program, but also on making sure that we don't push the Iranian people toward this regime.

This gives the United States and its partners a stronger hand in the negotiations. Iran is looking very embarrassed right now.  I suspect the Russians, while they have slightly different interests and incentives from the United States, are quite frustrated with this development and that puts Iran in a tough position. Now, politically, it also puts the United States in a bit of a tricky position because this is another talking point for people who say that Iran is incorrigible and that Obama is wasting his time talking to them. The United States would be wise to continue with its path of engagement, but not to think of that as an alternative to sanctions.  If Iran is up to no good, the pressure has to be ratcheted up even as we are talking to them.

How will Israel receive this news? After all, Israel has been most insistent on talking about the nuclear "threat" from Iran.

The image of not only President Obama, but President Obama shoulder-to-shoulder with Brown and Sarkozy unequivocally opposing this Iranian development has to look good not only to Israel but to others in the region who are concerned about where Iran is headed.  The picture of the United States in solidarity with these other countries, talking about intelligence on this program, is very powerful.

The French have been consistently tough on this whole question of possible nuclear weapons in Iran. Sarkozy said that Iran has until December to change its approach to international concerns about its nuclear program or sanctions will have to be taken. What kind of sanctions are we talking about now?

The talk has been about the possibility of sanctions on imports of refined petroleum products to Iran. Iran, while it produces a lot of oil, ships a good chunk of that abroad, and then re-imports the gasoline and diesel and jet fuel from other countries. If somehow the world could cut off those supplies or at least a good fraction of them, it could bite in a big way in Iran. Now whether that's feasible is a big question, and whether countries around the world decide to escalate to that point is a big question. Right now the most effective and powerful sanctions have probably been financial sanctions. A recent traveler to Tehran told me a week or two ago that, for example, Visa cards no longer work in Iran.  Sounds small, but this sort of thing is a major annoyance in conducting everyday commerce especially for the elite.

The past pattern has been to talk big about sanctions and to end up going smaller in exchange for being able to do things more multilaterally, particularly in exchange for being able to include the Russians and Chinese. We'll have to see, frankly, what the overall situation is when it comes time for sanctions, not only for the nuclear program in particular, but also with the political scene inside Iran.  Anytime we think about particularly harsh sanctions, there's a double calculation: one on pressuring the Iranian government on the nuclear program, but also on making sure that we don't push the Iranian people toward this regime particularly in the current political situation in Iran.

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