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The Truth about Qom

October 1, 2009

It was revealed to the press by Presidents Obama and Sarkozy and Prime Minister Brown on Friday, September 25th – incidentally the day after the US resolution on non-proliferation was unanimously passed in the Security Council – that Iran had a second uranium enrichment facility near Qom, a Shi’ite holy city in Central Iran. Actually it was revealed four days earlier by Iran itself, who had written a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to say they had constructed a pilot-scale plant designed to produce up to 5% enriched uranium. However, this is less interesting to the media than the response that this declaration received from the powers-that-be. Sarkozy looked like he would have gladly used the “Force de Frappe”, rather than more sanctions. You would be hard pressed to find any reports on this issue in the days before that press conference.

The media turned out in force and reported the findings of the US intelligence services as reported by ‘senior administration officials’. No names were given and a lot of information was withheld. You can read those findings here (, but it won’t really help you find out the truth about Qom. It will only tell you what US senior administration officials want you to know (or to think) about Qom.

Or you can take a look at the interactive graphic on the New York Times website (, of “Iran’s Hidden Nuclear Facility”, which is not really hidden because you can look at it via satellite on the web. The “military experts” tell us mainly how reinforced and fortified this site is, built into a mountain, making it suspicously able to withstand an attack. This is what we in Germany have been criticising when it comes to our nuclear installations: they wouldn’t withstand even a civil aircraft crashing into them, let alone a deliberate attack. And since Israel has been repeatedly threatening to bomb the first enrichment facility at Natanz, which – incidently – it did to the Osirak reactor in Iraq during its reconstruction, it is hardly suprising that Iran has fortified this site, and kept it secret during construction.

So how could one find out the truth about Qom? Well, one way would have been for the US to have asked the IAEA to ask Iran to let them look at it, way back there – when exactly they won’t reveal – when they started thinking it might be an enrichment facility. That’s what happened with Natanz and it was quite revealing. And although it didn’t reveal any actual nuclear weapons’ programme, it did reveal that Iran had not told the IAEA that it had built, and introduced material into (albeit say the Iranians that it was a very small amount for test purposes), an undeclared enrichment plant. Note the difference: “undeclared” is not the same as “secret”, but the latter sounds good when you are selling a newspaper. “Clandestine” is even better. In any case, that is how the trouble started, back in 2003.
So why didn’t the US brief the IAEA on its intelligence? Was it because they didn’t want Iran to know that they knew and were waiting for the centrifuges to be brought in to catch them redhanded? Or were they worried that they would be accused of trumping up a case before the evidence was solid? Here’s what one of those ‘senior administration officials’ had to say about that:

“You know, I think it would be a terrible mistake if we prematurely disclosed the facility, because at a very early stage of construction, a facility like this could have multiple uses. So we thought it was very important to wait until the facility had reached the stage of construction where it was undeniably intended for use as a centrifuge facility.
So, from our standpoint — and of course it takes years to build these facilities — and also we were building the case so that we felt that we were in a very strong position when the time came…” (My italics). Strong position for what?

Let’s think what would have happened if they had blown the cover on this facility before Iran had declared it. The IAEA might have found what Iran later declared: the construction of a pilot-phase enrichment facility. This would have been a problem if they had already installed equipment, introduced material or even begun enriching because it would mean that they were quite clearly in violation of the agreement they had made with the IAEA which states that a facility must be declared 180 days before material is introduced. Iran says, however, that this is not the case. But it would not have proven that a nuclear weapon’s programme exists.

So what is the problem? This is very complicated and involves what is called Code 3.1. Nobody can agree on what this actually means. Apparently Iran agreed under Code 3.1. to declare a nuclear facility when they were planning to construct it. This was part of the agreement they made to voluntarily abide by the Additional Protocol to the NPT Safeguards Agreement back in 2004 while they were still amenable to diplomatic overtures from the EU3 (Germany, United Kingdom and France). But in 2005, after the IAEA Board of Governors found Iran in non-compliance with its safeguards obligations, Iran broke off that agreement, did not ratify the Additional Protocol and rescinded Code 3.1. It may or may not be the case that the IAEA did not recognise this as being acceptable, but as far as Iran was concerned, it was. This is reminiscent of the discussion about whether North Korea has really withdrawn from the NPT or not. The discussion is not really relevant because the reality is that they perceive it as being so and have acted upon it.

In any case, the senior administration officials would have us believe that the Iranians only declared the plant to the IAEA because they had suddenly learnt that the West knew about it. There is no solid evidence for this. It is an assumption, at best; misleading, at worst. On the other hand, one could assume that the Iranians were certain that the US and Israeli intelligence services would be scanning the whole of Iran in fingerprint detail to find out if they were building a nuclear facility and would have already seen the plant long ago. If this is the case, then the question is why the Iranians decided to declare now? It is, of course, just remotely possible that they did want to remain within the 180 day notice period before introducing equipment and material into the facility. Or because they were about to engage in talks with the P5+1 this week and didn’t want to be confronted with another undeclared site.

Scott Ritter argues in an interview with Democracy Now! ( that all of this is just political hype. The case that the US is building is that the Iranians have a clandestine nuclear weapons programme and they have used the Iranian declaration to try to underpin this case by saying it was too little, too late. Ritter reminds us that Obama has not taken the military option off the table, though I would contend that that option remains very unpopular with the rest of the world and the aim here was to get the Russians and the Chinese to join in with sanctions, because then – and only then – would it start to hurt Iran.

But even given their suspicious behaviour and lack of cooperation from Iran, does that add up to any actual evidence that there is a clandestine weapon’s programme? This is what is being suggested to us and being implicitly accepted by the media, and even a lot of analysts. This is a rerun of the Iraq debacle where nothing could be proved but such a large amount of circumstantial evidence was collected to “build a case” of guilt, that it became hard to say they might be innocent, without being shouted down as “naive” or supportive of the regime. We were also shown satellite pictures that were meant to be conclusive evidence of a WMD programme.

I am also reminded that Saddam Husseins regime was just as obstructive, told lies, did not declare things till the last moment and behaved generally suspiciously. And at the end of the day, there was nothing there. Could it be that at the end of the day all we can find in Iran is a civilian nuclear programm and up to 5% enriched uranium? Might it be that they are not especially helpful to the IAEA because they consider all these requirements to be an imposition on their sovereignty? Even if I might condemn this behaviour as undermining the NPT and its provisions for safeguarding, I cannot claim to know that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

So what does this do to us? Thinking that Iran might have or get the bomb? Maybe that is what this is all about. It is about not knowing whether they can or cannot, or might in the future be able to, build a bomb. In my opinion, that is the aim of the Iranian nuclear programme: To create uncertainty. And that is one step short of the proclaimed aim of the military doctrine of the United States when it comes to nuclear weapons. The enemy should never be sure whether they will use nuclear weapons or not. But they should know that they have the ability to do so.

That is the whole problem with nuclear energy. You can hide a military programme behind it. You can even pretend to hide one. One way or another, once you have enrichment or reprocessing facilities, you become a force to reckon with.

A last word: I am no friend of the regime in Iran. Quite the opposite, I support the resistance for democracy that has been so brutally suppressed since the elections there. But I contend that this kind of aggressive posturing on the part of the West only strengthens the hand of the hardliners in the Iranian regime. We are playing them at their own game. The question of the right to make sovereign decisions about energy policy is of enormous importance to people in Iran. History has shown us (the West) to be the aggressors, not Iran, and the present regime got into power because of that. And it will stay in power if we continue with this strategy, instead of sitting down to talk genuinely about ending centuries of conflict. It is not enough to send in the IAEA to inspect the Qom facility. It is time to begin to make peace with Iran.

  1. Gunnar Westberg permalink
    October 2, 2009 4:01 am

    Thank you Xanthe for this informative article! I am naive, obviously, as I have been thinking just as you do, but I find it emotionally impossible to believe that not all many informed people are thinking just as we do, but for some reason they pretend not to, they find it so inopportune to remind the world that the problem is not Iran, it is Russia and the USA. Not to mention Israel, and its unmentionable “clandestine” nuclear arsenal.
    Will the new US mobile missile defense shoot down Israeli missiles if they attack Iran? This can not be discussed.
    Why is you paper not in Die Zeit or NYT? Who is the censor, that makes it impossible to print the obvious?
    When I saw the news on the attack on Iran’s “secrecy” by the Joint Chiefs of the Western World, I thought the charade was there to cover for the failure of Obama to assume any responsibility for nuclear disarmament in his speech or the UNSC resolution. But almost everybody was so happy for those, although they were great disappointments, that there was no need to direct attention in the other direction.

  2. Russ permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:42 am

    Playing nice with Iran will not stop them from their predicted course of action and playing hard merely slows it. It may be inevitable that Iran develops nuclear weapons, that is unless Israel gets itchy and attacks the sites. Iran’s action of refusing to ratify 3.1, continuing to break off talks, baring IAEA inspectors is likely the most immediate danger to humanity as we know it. If their actions are entirely peaceful, they should have no problem allowing inspections immediately. They have a right to peaceful nuclear power and if that is indeed their only goal, they should be as open as possible so as not to invite the wrath of Israel.

  3. afzaneh moheb permalink
    October 1, 2009 10:18 am

    thank you so much for this intelligent, sensitive and well balanced article. we do miss such voices in these terrible times, where one doesn’t know who wants what and why… I totally agree with you about the regime in iran and its criminal human rights violations and I do fear all kind of nuclear power, may it be for war or for energy.

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