It’s been a big 48 hours. An Iranian dissident group has provided new information about a suspect facility nestled in the mountains northwest of Tehran, near the city of Qazvin. The People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI) says it has information from sources in Iran that the facility, referred to by authorities as “311,” is supervised by a Mr. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi, an individual who is under UN sanctions for his suspected work on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. PMOI describes it as an underground facility for uranium enrichment. The National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), a long-time source of initial information on Iran’s nuclear programs, says the facility is run by Iran’s Ministry of Defense, and that construction on the underground facility in question began in 2005. (Oddly, Washington Post didn’t report these particular details, although Haaretz did.)
The Western media note correctly that not all information from Iranian dissident groups has panned out, although it’s also fair to say that we can’t be sure exactly how much of their information has been accurate, because we haven’t had the access needed for decisive validation. The original NCRI/PMOI intelligence on the uranium enrichment facility at Natanz, for example – now declared, and subject to IAEA inspection – was demonstrated to be valid. Other information, on underground facilities reportedly dug on the southern outskirts of Tehran, has not been proven, but substantial elements of it have not been disproven either.
The new information has a good chance of being valid, however. Iran has had a military installation in Qazvin, and military-controlled facilities located in proximity to it, for years. Qazvin was suspected since the late 1980s of hosting a dual-use chemical plant and chemical weapons facility. (The chemical plant definitely existed and was run with a series of foreign partners, India being the last one. The dual-use purpose of the plant – for weaponizable toxins as well as pesticides – was assessed by Western intelligence.) A major earthquake in 2002 – in the aftermath of which the Revolutionary Guard reportedly rushed troops to the Qazvin site – put the chemical plant out of commission.
Iran has already indicated the intention to build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities, and of course was “called” last fall on the one being constructed in secret at the Qom Fordo site. The Iranians have been allowed to handle IAEA inspections and compliance on a largely uncooperative basis – and they have pressed their advantage on that repeatedly. Their pattern to date justifies urgent suspicion and investigation when any new information is advanced.
What’s troubling, therefore, is the very dismissive attitude with which US officials and subject-matter experts have addressed this report. Of course US analysts have not missed the tunneling activity at Qazvin. But the Defense Department’s position – “We’ve seen the tunneling, but we don’t have information that this is a nuclear-related facility” – is disingenuous. Now you do have such information, guys. Check it out – and don’t look sleepy and uninterested doing it.
The Institute for Science and International Security says no more than that, in its 9 September “analysis” of the PMOI report. ISIS basically takes a few more words than the DOD spokesman did to say the same thing: knew about the tunneling, don’t know about a nuclear program connection. Hey, not everything from PMOI pans out. I respect ISIS’ efforts, and refer to them often, but in this case, the dismissive tone is unjustified. To its credit, ISIS does argue for an IAEA inspection of the Qazvin site.
We will see if IAEA is pressed by Western governments to do anything about this information. But if the lassitude of the US response is an indicator, I’m not holding my breath. This is really inexcusable, however. Iran does dig a lot. Iran is not so wealthy and multifarious, however, that she could build 10 new uranium enrichment facilities and not be putting them in some of the underground installations we already know she’s digging out. It’s not just bad leadership to speak dismissively of this new report, it’s execrable analysis. If Iran is going to expand her uranium enrichment capability, we should look first where she’s already tunneling. That’s axiomatic.
If we knew for sure the Qazvin site wasn’t to be used for nuclear-related activities, the DOD spokesman would have said more than merely that we have no information. He could easily have said, without getting specific, that US analysts have another assessment: that we have reason to believe the PMOI report is wrong. He didn’t say that, although there would have been good reason to give that assurance, and there’s none to withhold it.
However you slice it, this amounts to unjustifiable fecklessness. When even our rhetoric is this disjointed and lackadaisical, Iran has little reason to take us seriously. Whatever else it is, it’s not a good way to reassure Israel, and the Arabs who fear a nuclear-armed Iran, that we’re taking the problem seriously.
Cross-posted at Hot Air.