Iran showdown just got a whole lot closer

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

The Iranians have been watching too many James Bond movies. If you want to hide a secret uranium enrichment plant, you should bury it in the heart of the city. Hollowing out a mountain attracts the attention of every intelligence service in the world.

Western intelligence agencies have known about Iran's second uranium enrichment plant, hidden in the mountains west of Qom, since construction began in 2006. Amazingly, it took until now for Iran's spooks to realise that and warn Tehran to come clean. The Iranian government has now delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) admitting that the plant exists.

Hiding things always causes suspicion. 'The revelation of this second nuclear enrichment site ... proves beyond any doubt that [Iran] wants to equip itself with nuclear weapons,' said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The Qom discovery also brought Russian President Dmitry Medvedev around to the view that 'in some cases, sanctions are inevitable'.

The United States, Britain, France and Germany were already convinced that Iran is working on nuclear weapons , and Russia makes five. Out of the six countries that are negotiating with Iran (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), only China is still holding out, but it is starting to waver. Thursday's meeting between Iran and the six nations may not be followed immediately by sanctions, but they are coming soon.

Yet it is still not clear that Iran is actually seeking nuclear weapons. The religious leadership regularly declares that they are 'un-Islamic', and presumably takes its own decrees seriously. On the other hand, the country has been facing the threat of attack by the US or Israel for decades.

So it's hardly surprising that the Iranians chose a back-up site for uranium enrichment in case their main enrichment plant at Natanz was destroyed. However, the site near Qom is much smaller, and could not supply the large quantities of slightly enriched uranium that a nuclear power station requires. What it could do is supply the small amount of highly enriched uranium that a nuclear weapon requires.

Many people, therefore, think the Iranians meant to keep the Qom facility secret. Others, including myself, think the Qom site is meant to give Iran the option of going flat-out for nuclear weapons if the US or Israel were to destroy the Natanz site. Both of these possible rationales were pretty stupid, since there was really no way that the Qom site could stay secret. But it does matter which of those motives underlay the Qom site: was it to build secret nuclear weapons as soon as possible, or to have the ability to build nuclear weapons if attacked?

The probable answer is that Iran wants an independent source of fuel for its civil nuclear power programme - but also the ability to produce nuclear weapons within six to 12 months if it is attacked. Sanctions are now almost certain, and the odds of US or Israeli military strikes on Iran just got a lot shorter.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries