New Doubt Cast on U.S. Claim Qom Plant is Illicit

WASHINGTON (IPS) — An Iranian assertion that construction on its second enrichment facility began only last year and further analysis of satellite photos of the site have cast fresh doubts on the Barack Obama administration’s charge that the construction of the plant near Qom involved a covert decision to violate Iran’s obligations to report immediately to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on any decision to build a new facility.

At a Sep. 25 briefing on the site, senior administration officials refused to provide any specific information to back up the claim that construction had begun before the March 2007 Iranian withdrawal from an agreement requiring that it inform the IAEA immediately of any decision to build a nuclear facility.

The U.S. charges on the Qom facility, coming a week before the first opportunity for negotiations with Iran on a full range of issues since 1981, appear to have been a deliberate ploy to make the Obama administration appear tough and on the offensive when the talks started.

Iran’s Vice President Ali Akbar Salehi, who is also the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organisation, told a news conference Tuesday that his agency took over a military ammunition dump in 2008 to begin work on the enrichment facility near Qom.

Meanwhile, a new photo analysis by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) of the Qom site in 2004 and 2005 suggests it was not dedicated to building a uranium enrichment facility at that time.

In a brief analysis posted on the ISIS webpage Tuesday, Paul Brannan, a specialist in interpreting satellite photography at ISIS, said he believed that the site on which the Qom enrichment facility was later constructed was “originally a tunnel facility associated with Iran’s military” rather than a “construction site for a uranium plant”.

Brannan wrote that there was evidence of some construction between June 2004 and March 2005, but that the pace appeared “slow”. That tunneling activity, Brannan wrote, “may not have been originally associated with the later construction activity for the suspected uranium enrichment site”.

Brannan told IPS it is “technically possible” that the relatively slight changes he saw from 2004 to 2005 were associated with the enrichment facility, but said the images of the site at that stage appear similar to many other tunnel facilities built into a mountain that are maintained by the Iranian military.

“The Iranian military has hundreds of these around Iran,” Brannon said.

Brannan said he is now in the process of obtaining satellite imagery for 2006 through 2008 in order to establish more clearly when the construction on the facility began.

In his press conference, Salehi described the second enrichment facility as “a small version of Natanz” – Iran’s large-scale commercial enrichment plant – and explained it as a measure aimed at ensuring the continuity of the programme if its nuclear sites were attacked.

If construction on the Qom site did not begin until 2008, as Salehi claimed, it would have been long after Iran had withdrawn from an agreement with the IAEA — the so-called “modified Code 3.1” — obligating it to report design information on nuclear facilities as soon as the decision is made.

That would further suggest that Iran is serious about remaining in compliance with its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement.

Iran notified the IAEA in March 2007 that it intended to revert to the earlier version of the “Code 3.1” Subsidiary Arrangement with the agency, which obligated it to provide design information at least 180 days before introduction of nuclear material into the facility. Subsidiary Arrangements are codicils to the Safeguards Agreement – the document which defines the basic transparency and other obligations of each IAEA member state.

In a briefing for reporters last week a “senior administration official” asserted that Iran had begun construction on the Qom enrichment facility “with the intent that it be secret”, thus giving Iran “an option of producing weapons-grade uranium without the international community knowing about it”.

A key element of that charge was that Iran had violated the “modified Code 3.1” agreement at the very time it had been ostensibly implementing that agreement.

“We know construction of the facility began even before the Iranians unilaterally said they did not feel bound by that obligation,” the official declared.

But the briefing official seemed to confirm the conclusion of the ISIS analysis of the satellite imagery by suggesting that the site was considered as an enrichment site even though there was evidence that it had a different function. “[A]t a very early stage of construction,” the official said, “a facility like this could have multiple uses.”

There were other hints as well that the U.S. charge was not based on visual evidence of construction but on the supposition that the site was intended for the enrichment facility, even though little or no construction was actually taking place.

“[W]e wanted to wait until the actual construction caught up with that intent,” said the official at one point.

The unnamed senior official declined on three different occasions during the briefing to answer questions on when construction on the facility had started.

When a reporter asked directly, “Do you have a clear idea of when the construction started?” the official flatly refused to answer. The official also refused to answer when asked if the construction was started before President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August 2005.

The official also said, “These kinds of things are always a matter of degree.”

If the satellite imagery for 2006, 2007 and 2008 shows that construction did not begin until after the Iranian withdrawal from its commitment to modified Code 3.1, it would provide new evidence that Iran intended to remain within the letter of its safeguards agreement and was not planning a covert enrichment facility.

President Obama called the second enrichment facility “a direct challenge to the basic foundation of the non-proliferation regime”, saying Iran had broken “rules that all nations must follow”.

Outgoing IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei declared in New Delhi Wednesday that Iran is “on the wrong side of the law… insofar as informing the agency about the construction.”

Although it has remained unreported in the news media, however, Iran has a legal case that it has remained in compliance with its Safeguards Agreement.

In March 2009, the director of the IAEA Office of Legal Affairs, Johan Rautenbach, called Iran’s reversion to implementation of the earlier version of the Code 3.1 “inconsistent with its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements”.

But he went on to say that it was “difficult to conclude that providing information in accordance with the earlier formulation in itself constitutes non-compliance with, or a breach of, the Safeguards Agreement as such.”

The Safeguards Agreement itself clearly forbids unilateral “modification” of a Subsidiary Arrangement, but it says nothing about withdrawal from such an agreement, which is what Iran is asserting it did in March 2007.

The distinction between “modification” and “withdrawal” from provisions of an international agreement is well established in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties.

Unilateral withdrawal is permitted under that Convention, provided that the provision in question is separable from the remainder of the agreement, is not the essential basis of consent by the other party and continued performance of the remainder of the agreement would not be “unjust”.

The head of the IAEA Legal Department appears to have accepted that those three conditions applied to the case of Iran’s “Modified Code 3.1” agreement.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for Journalism. His latest book, with John Kiriakou, is The CIA Insider’s Guide to the Iran Crisis: From CIA Coup to the Brink of War. Read other articles by Gareth.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 4th, 2009 at 1:02am #

    So, once again we are being brainwashed, by the same recidivist pathological liars, the Western bully-boys who do the Holy State’s agit-prop for it, to the same end, the destruction of a Middle Eastern Islamic state, as occured in 2002 over ‘Saddam’s WMD’. This particular lie-fest, being repeated with robotic precision, over and over again, as always without a peep of dissent, by the psychopathic stooges of the Western media sewer, reminds me of the ‘uranium from Africa’ lie from 2002. Who can forget that florid psychopath, GW Bush, (the sort of man who makes a joke of mocking by callous imitation the pleas for mercy of one of the scores he sentenced to death by only once commuting a death sentence in over one hundred cases) gibbering moronically about ‘uranium from Africa’. Not wanting to confused his single digit IQ support base by naming Niger specifically (or perhaps loathe to repeat what he probably pronounces like a racist epithet)his lie on that occasion was cretinously unspecific.
    Obama is plainly smarter, shrewder and even more unscrupulous than Bush. His Zionazi masters want more blood, probably to celebrate Purim next February 28th, so we should, I imagine, see a few more months of mounting media hysteria, lying and hatemongering-what they do best. Of course Iran has not been softened up by a decade of brutal sanctions, like Iraq. You can bet that the Yanks and their Judeofascist controllers, let alone the flunkies of NATO, will not dare invade Iran. Far too deadly a foe, and our Yankee heroes, while blissfully happy to kill for Mom, God and apple-pie (on a stick, dipped in batter and deep fried)are far more loathe to die for them. So I expect it will be the trademark Israeli sneak attack, then either real Iranian retaliation against the Yanks, or some Mossad black-ops provocation, and the US Air Force and Navy can join in the fun. I expect it will not be a ‘turkey-shoot’ like Gaza, Lebanon or the Kuwait-Basra Highway in 1991, to warm the cockles of the ‘hearts’ of the homicidal maniacs, but it sure as hell will be good for business, and the favourite business of the US is, and always has been, murder.

  2. balkas b b said on October 4th, 2009 at 8:37am #

    I do not doubt even a tad that iran wld be attacked, dismembered, and puppetized.
    Almost all arab lands wld also like to see the demise of iran.
    To justify an attack on iran, it must be assiduously portrayed as peril to nato lands and ME.
    But nato is not ready yet. And only high politico-military echelons know why it is not ready or unable to attack iran at this time.
    But we do have some guesses as to why iran is not being attacked at this time. Any guessing adventurers out there? tnx

  3. Don Hawkins said on October 4th, 2009 at 8:54am #

    Because an attack on Iran could be the straw that broke the camels back. They are not ready to do that yet. Plans not in place yet for a few people. Make a good book.

  4. Annie Ladysmith said on October 4th, 2009 at 11:33pm #

    I do hope that people are getting better at discerning these scumbag’s wretched LIES, what with all the 9/11 truth searchers, and the ubiquitous, ‘weapons of mass destruction’ BIG LIE. BUT, i have my doubts.

    Obama is a puppet just like Boy Bush, he may be slightly more cunning, but the same LYING, FORKED-TONGUE,SNAKE-WEASEL as they all are. Expendable pawns in the Power-brokers game but loyal to their programers.

    They have threatened and terrorized the nation of Iran for NO GOOD reason. If Iran said PISS-OFF, which it has every right to, they would have those fuel-cell bombs bombarding civilian targets morning and night for months. They are completely MAD, and should be put in asylums and then heavily sedated, while the American people take their money and their gov. back.


  5. lloyd said on October 5th, 2009 at 8:44am #

    Terrifyingly like the uranium flap before King George II unleashed the dogs of war on Iraq. But will Ms. Rice play the role of cat’s paw in the United Nations like General Powell did in 2003? And this time of course, to clear the way for an attack whether nuclear or not by militant Israel on Iran.

  6. Shabnam said on October 5th, 2009 at 10:45am #

    I have just found out that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who is supporter of Mujahedeen – a terrorist organization at the service of zionism, is A JEW. This Zionist Jew has been involved in many bills against Iranian people and she is determine to wage a war on Iran for interest of Israel by establishing ‘greater Israel’ through destabilization and partition.
    She recently said:
    “The U.S. and other countries must immediately impose crippling sanctions on the Iranian regime, including cutting off Iran’s imports of gasoline,” said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The world cannot stand by and watch the nightmare of a nuclear-armed Iran become reality.”

    The world cannot stand by and watch the nightmare of Zionist Jews who are using American power, resources and American lives to expand Israel’s interest in the world. Please expose names of all Zionist Jews in the government and ask American people to force these agents and their puppets out. Shame on people who protect and help these enemies of humanity. Defeat Zionism and its agents, a fifth column, in every western capital.

    Jeff Gates writes:
    Citing Iran’s “covert” facility, Wolfowitz claims it is “clear that Iran’s rulers are pursuing nuclear weapons.…Time is running out.” Without a hint of irony, he argues that Iran (not Israel) “is a crucial test of whether the path to a nuclear-free world is a realistic one or simply a dangerous pipe dream.” In calling for “crippling sanctions,” Howard Berman, Jewish chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed similar concerns as did Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, senior Republican on the Committee and also Jewish.

  7. lloyd said on October 5th, 2009 at 4:25pm #

    I don’t mind being bumped off the comments column, but by such raving!

    Apparently Shabnam is referring to Zionist Jews in the American government as who should be exposed and kicked out. If so, he or she or it is certifiable. But worse than insane, S. is spewing the sort of trash that promotes AIPAC and its sympathizers, ie, he or she or it is being counterproductive.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 5th, 2009 at 5:16pm #

    Shabnam, the Zionazis who control the US political process ought to be exposed. I think lloyd is wrong to counsel ignoring their Judaic roots, because the truth never hurts. AIPAC will vilify any critics of Israel as ‘anti-Semites’ no matter what. The sinister religio-fascist implications of the Israeli campaign to demonise then ‘obliterate’ (in Clinton’s words)Iran must be borne in mind. Israel is increasingly a state dominated by religious fascists like Shas and their more secular fascist supporters like Avigdor Lieberman. The upper ranks of the military and intelligence are increasingly dominated by religious zealots affiliated to the settler Taliban, and for them, as was revealed in the New York Times, the Iranian question is an ‘Amalek’ moment.
    For those unacquainted with Judaic demonology, the Amalekites are God’s eternal enemies. The Great Jew in the Sky has decreed that they must be exterminated, down to the last suckling babe. As to who the ‘Amalek of the current age’ are, the nominees are numerous. Certain religio-homicidal authorities have it that they are the Palestinians, Arabs as a whole or even the USA. Recently I have seen not a few who declare that they come from Persia (Iran) and Haman, the great hate-figure from that religious celebration of Judaic mass murder, Purim, was one of them. I’d say that the destruction of Iran is already decided upon, that it is set for next February 28th, in order to ‘celebrate’ Purim in the proper manner, and that the ‘House Negro’ and all the other Western stooges of Judaic power will either ‘turn the other way’ like good Christians, or join in the slaughter. That would get the Jewish political donations flowing, nicely.

  9. lloyd said on October 5th, 2009 at 5:38pm #

    I’ve been away from DV and at OpEdNews, Mulga, and have never read the term “Zionazis”. But considering the alignment of military forces in the Levant and eastward, I can’t see what good it serves to antagonize militant Israelis. The truth may never hurt, but it can kill.

    We are here typing, while Codepink and Cynthia McKinney and countless others are putting their bodies on the line to oppose M.I. in Gaza and elsewhere. I believe in not interfering with their good work, and I truly believe that they think good work can be done with words also.

    And those words are not words of hate and separation. Militant Israelis, dear Mulga, are scared shitless too.