“Moderate” Rouhani misled West; sneaked in centrifuges?

Iran’s nukes: known unknowns.

There is a particularly interesting aspect to the video that has recently surfaced, in which Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, gloats over Iran’s success in coopting European negotiators to keep the Iranian nuclear program on track in the mid-2000s, in spite of pressure from the United States.

The video clip, from an Iranian news-program interview of Rouhani in Farsi, was published by Reza Khalili.  Ryan Mauro highlights it at the Clarion Project, tying it to a report from 31 July in which Mauro outlined Rouhani’s extensive history of using deception about the Iranian nuclear program back when he was the chief nuclear negotiator for Tehran.

The deception and Rouhani’s gloating are important (see especially his characterization of the top-cover he received from European negotiators); I will let readers visit the reports and soak in the information at your leisure.  What I want to focus on here is the timeline Rouhani refers to in the video.  If he is telling the truth – and there is no obvious reason why he would lie about the timing he refers to – the timeline he outlines for bringing Iranian centrifuge cascades online in substantial numbers makes a poignant contrast with the reporting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at the time.

The contrast highlights just how in the dark IAEA was during this period, at least about the centrifuges.  (It’s also worth highlighting, in general, the timeline of what was going on during the EU-brokered negotiations Rouhani refers to in the video.)  Certainly, many in the West had an uneasy suspicion that, by the end of 2005, Iran may have accomplished more than IAEA was officially aware of.  But, as late as February 2006, IAEA acknowledged the following decisive condition:

Due to the fact that no centrifuge related raw materials and components are under Agency seal, the Agency is unable effectively to monitor the R&D activities being carried out by Iran except at the [Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant],* where containment and surveillance measures are being applied to the enrichment process.

Rouhani’s timeline

The full timeline from the video develops as follows.  Rouhani summarizes it between the time hacks of 3:45 and 4:30.  His overall allusion is to the period from October 2003 to August 2005, when he was the chief negotiator for the Iranian nuclear program.

His initial discussion of the nuclear power plant at Bushehr contains no surprises; it is couched in the following terms:

– First phase of Bushehr project completed – Beginning of 2004

– Next phase completed – Fall of 2004

These references are presumably to Russia’s completion of facility construction, which was noted at the time in Western reporting.

– Project completed – March 2005

This is probably a reference to an agreement between Russia and Iran, concluded in February 2005, under which Moscow would supply the enriched-uranium fuel for the light-water reactor at Bushehr.  (See here as well for a summary from 2006 alluding to the 2005 agreement.)

Iran Nuclear Facilities
Iran Nuclear Facilities

So far, so good.  Next, Rouhani speaks of the heavy-water reactor, or the plutonium reactor at Arak.

– “Production” started at the heavy-water plant – Summer of 2004

Construction of the reactor was begun in June of 2004, but Rouhani here appears to be referring to the heavy-water production plant (HWPP), a particular component of the Arak reactor system, which reportedly began operation (i.e., the production of heavy water) in November 2004.

In this walk back through the Iranian nuclear program, it is worth recalling what the official line was about Arak at the time, in the big middle of the EU-3 talks with Iran:

Iran has started building a research reactor that could eventually produce enough plutonium for one bomb per year, ignoring calls to scrap the project, diplomats close to the United Nations said on Thursday. …

IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said Iran had created a “confidence deficit” by concealing parts of its atomic program for nearly two decades and urged Tehran to improve its transparency and cooperation with U.N. inspectors. A concluding statement from this week’s IAEA governing board meeting said the 35 members unanimously said it was “essential that Iran provide full transparency and extend proactive cooperation to the agency.” …

The EU’s “big three” states have offered Iran a package of economic and political incentives if it abandons its uranium enrichment program, which could produce fuel for nuclear power plants or atomic weapons. Tehran has temporarily frozen most of the program but has refused to abandon it.

Iran has, of course, continued the heavy-water reactor program at Arak in the ensuing years, with the HWPP continuing to produce heavy water.  The reactor is to be brought online in 2014, according to Iran’s projection; a circumstance the U.S. officially finds “deeply troubling.”

(Also worth noting about Arak is that, like many of the components of Iran’s nuclear program, it was brought to public attention by an Iranian opposition group; in this case, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, which published its information about the site in 2002.  NCRI provided extensive detail on activities at the site in 2002; Iran, following the usual pattern, later notified IAEA of her intention to construct the reactor there, in May 2003.)

The yellowcake break

Rouhani alludes next to the production of yellowcake:

– First yellowcake produced – Winter of 2004

Although there have been multiple announcements of Iran’s first production of yellowcake, Rouhani is probably talking here about an initial quantity of 40-50 kilograms of it, produced in conjunction with inauguration of the Gchine uranium mine in July 2004.  IAEA recorded this information in its Safeguards report of 15 November 2004.  (See here and here for later reports of Iran’s first yellowcake production.)

As a reminder: when Iran became able to routinely produce her own yellowcake – which I assess to have occurred in the late-2008 to early-2009 timeframe – it became impossible for IAEA to track how much of a uranium stock Iran has.  In the early 2000s, estimates could be bounded by the size of Iran’s original stock of yellowcake, which had been obtained from South Africa in the 1970s.  Once a supply of indigenously produced yellowcake came on the scene, it was impossible to account for everything Iran might have: where all the new yellowcake was going (e.g., all of it to the official, acknowledged facility at Esfahan for conversion; all of that to Natanz for enrichment?), and how much enriched uranium hexafluoride (UF6) was coming out the other end.

Under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, Iran doesn’t owe IAEA an accounting for her raw uranium or yellowcake output.  An instrument called the Additional Protocol to the NPT provides for member states to render such an accounting, but under the radical mullahs’ regime, Iran has never agreed to abide by the Additional Protocol.  So she does not give IAEA this accounting, or allow IAEA controls to be exerted over her mining and milling activities.

When were the centrifuges in play?

It is with this in mind that we should approach the final piece of Rouhani’s timeline, concerning centrifuge cascades for uranium enrichment: 

– “Centrifuges reached 3,000” – In 2005

– 1,700 centrifuges when Rouhani left the project – that is, in August 2005, when he stepped down as the chief negotiator for the nuclear program

Compare those numbers and dates with the understanding of IAEA during that period that Iran had suspended uranium enrichment.  Here is what IAEA said about Iran’s centrifuge operations and enrichment activities in August 2005 (in the Safeguards report dated 2 September 2005):

53. Pursuant to the Board’s resolution on 29 November 2004 (GOV/2004/90), and previous resolutions, the Agency has continued its activities to verify and monitor all elements of Iran’s voluntary suspension of all enrichment related and reprocessing activities.

54. Prior to 22 November 2004, the Agency had already established a baseline inventory of all UF6, essential centrifuge components, key raw materials and equipment, and the assembled centrifuge rotors at declared workshops said by Iran to have been involved in the manufacturing of centrifuge components, and had applied containment and surveillance measures to these items.

55. The Agency has continued its monthly monitoring activities at the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz, most recently from 30 to 31 August 2005, to ensure that the suspension of enrichment activities at PFEP is fully implemented. The surveillance records from the cascade hall have been reviewed to ensure that no additional centrifuge machines were installed. The seals on the equipment and nuclear material have been replaced and verified. The inventory of centrifuge components has been verified periodically, and the seals on the essential components replaced and verified. The cascade hall, and the 20 sets of centrifuge components stored at the feed and withdrawal station, continue to be under Agency surveillance, and all the previously declared UF6 feed material at PFEP, as well as product and tails, remain under Agency containment and surveillance.

At the same time, Alireza Jafarzadeh of NCRI had announced, in separate events on 9 and 18 August 2005, that Iran had produced 4,000 centrifuges which had not been declared to IAEA, and which were ready to be installed for operation.  IAEA never did anything with this report.

How many centrifuges did IAEA think were installed and/or in operation?  Good question.  In October 2003, Iran finalized the installation of the first 164-centrifuge cascade at the PFEP – presumably what Rouhani refers to as Iran having “150 centrifuges” when he took over the nuclear-negotiating job.

IAEA was able to verify the installation of a second 164-centrifuge cascade at the PFEP by October 2006 – an event indicating a much, much lower centrifuge total than 1,700 or 3,000.

In its February 2006 report, linked above, IAEA regretted the lack of transparency in the Iranian nuclear program, which made it difficult to resolve questions about its nature (emphasis added):

Without full transparency that extends beyond the formal legal requirements of the Safeguards Agreement and Additional Protocol — transparency that could only be achieved through Iran’s active cooperation — the Agency’s ability to reconstruct the history of Iran’s past programme and to verify the correctness and completeness of the statements made by Iran, particularly with regard to its centrifuge enrichment programme, will be limited, and questions about the past and current direction of Iran’s nuclear programme will continue to be raised.

IAEA basically had its November 2004 baseline for centrifuges at the PFEP to work with during this period.  It did not have a good handle on what was going on in the larger FEP, nor did it have the slightest idea what was going on in the underground facilities at Esfahan, where extensive tunneling activities were revealed in late 2004.  IAEA visited an underground chamber at Esfahan in November 2004, but it was empty at the time.  IAEA has not visited Esfahan’s underground complex since, nor has it ever been allowed to visit the vast underground network identified at Natanz by 2007.

Tunnels at Esfahan, Feb 2005 (Annotations: Institute for Science and International Security/ISIS)
Tunnels at Esfahan, Feb 2005 (Annotations: Institute for Science and International Security/ISIS)

IAEA’s lack of information continued throughout 2006.  Another Safeguards report refers to centrifuge operations on 23 May 2007, 21 months after August 2005.  In May 2007, IAEA registered this lament (emphasis added):

Since early 2006, the Agency has not received the type of information that Iran had previously been providing, including pursuant to the Additional Protocol, for example information relevant to the assembly of centrifuges, the manufacture of centrifuge components or associated equipment and research and development of centrifuges or enrichment techniques.

But in this report, at least, IAEA was finally able to give some numbers on the centrifuge cascades in the FEP at Natanz:

On 13 May 2007, eight 164-machine cascades were operating simultaneously and were being fed with UF6; two other similar cascades had been vacuum tested and three more were under construction.

The centrifuge total from this layout would come to 1,312, operational and being fed with UF6.  That’s below the total Rouhani cites for a timeframe of 21 months earlier, although it is not fully clear from the translation what status Rouhani assigns to the centrifuges he talks about.  Does he mean the 1,700 were installed and operational by August 2005, when he departed his nuclear-negotiating job?  Or does he mean their manufacture and delivery were completed?  What about the 3,000 by the end of 2005?  If his starting number – 150 – means the same thing as his ending numbers, then he is, in fact, referring to operational centrifuges, and not just the number of finished machines on-hand.  But we can’t conclude that as an indisputable interpretation.

The long march of gaps in knowledge

In any case, IAEA can’t help us with this question, because it just didn’t know.  The May 2007 observation concludes a period in which the comprehensive timeline looks like this:

Oct 2003 – 164 centrifuges begin operating at the PFEP

Oct 2004 – Suspicious tunneling begins at Esfahan

Nov 2004 – IAEA’s last baseline inventory of Iranian UF6 and centrifuges/parts

Nov 2004 – Last/only IAEA visit to underground chamber at Esfahan

Aug 2005 – NCRI announces Iran has produced approximately 4,000 centrifuges and plans to install them in secret

Aug 2005 – According to Rouhani, the nuclear program had 1,700 centrifuges

Dec 2005 – According to Rouhani, the nuclear program had 3,000 centrifuges

Oct 2006 – IAEA can account for 328 centrifuges operating at the PFEP

May 2007 – IAEA can account for 1,312 centrifuges operating at the FEP, in addition to the 328 at the PFEP (making a total of 1,650)

There is a big blank space in IAEA accountability events between November 2004 and May 2007.  At no time during this period, from when the tunneling started at Esfahan to when IAEA could finally report a number on centrifuges operating at the FEP – i.e., the Iranians let a team in to have a look – was IAEA able to confirm what was going on in the FEP or in the underground chambers of the tunnel complex.

Indeed, nothing can be confirmed, on any date since that time, about what’s going on in the tunnel complexes, either at Esfahan or Natanz.

Certainly, if Rouhani referred in the video to operational centrifuges in 2005, his totals are between 1,536 and 2,836 more than the baseline of operational centrifuges known to IAEA in 2005.  We may never know for sure how many there were operational then.  Among other things, that means we may well not know how many there are operational today.  (We have other reasons for not being certain about that, of course.)

One thing we do know, however, in our little universe of known knowns about the Iranian nuclear problem, is that the uranium enrichment curve has continued to accelerate.  It may have accelerated more than we know, but it has accelerated at least as much as we know.


* The Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant, or PFEP, is a facility located at Natanz where Iran initiates new enrichment processes on a small scale.  The co-located main Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) houses the industrial-scale enrichment cascades, where Western analysts have assessed the bulk of the uranium enrichment to be done.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, The Daily Caller, The Jewish Press, and The Weekly Standard online. She also writes for the new blog Liberty Unyielding.

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18 thoughts on ““Moderate” Rouhani misled West; sneaked in centrifuges?”

  1. I submit more heresy

    It is the Israeli nuclear arsenal that is producing instability in the region and fueling a regional nuclear arms race, not the threat of the underdeveloped, untested and undeployed Iranian nuclear “arsenal”.

    Although, it is now probable that Iran will develop break out capacity. Whether she goes “all out”, tests and produces nuclear weapons depends on what security guarantees, and normalization of relations, she will be offered.

    I will state again for the advocates of “regime change”, Neither an externally instigated overthrow nor a spontaneously revolt arising from within will change long-term Iranian thinking on this issue. As long as there is another nuclear armed regional power, and there is no nuclear power committed to defend Iran by treaty in the case of nuclear attack, then Iran must achieve break out capacity at the very least. Any rational nation-state would do the same in their position.

    1. “It is the Israeli nuclear arsenal that is producing instability in the region and fueling a regional nuclear arms race, not the threat of the underdeveloped, untested and undeployed Iranian nuclear “arsenal”.”

      It is certain that Iran will develop break out capacity and go ‘all out’.

      No amount of security guarantees will suffice because Iran is NOT pursuing nuclear weapons capacity for defensive reasons.

      The ONLY “normalization of relations” that Iran’s Mullahs are interested in is the total defeat and destruction of Israel and the subjugation of America. They’re religious fanatics… they have a holy obligation to work toward both goals. They believe that they’ve been unequivocally commanded by Allah, to do so.

      “A fanatic is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.” Winston Churchill

      Iran is NOT a rational nation-state and therein lies the misconception, that leads to your faulty conclusions. By definition, a rogue state is not rational. And it is its own behavior that determines the classification of a rogue state. Calling a rabid dog by any other name, changes its behavior and motivations not in the least.

  2. Can’t agree with you on Israel, jgets. The Israeli bomb is actually a stabilizing factor, because it deters the rest of the region from flinging itself in bits and pieces at Israel, which it would be more likely to do in the absence of an Israeli deterrent. More frequent Middle Eastern wars would have been the alternative, over the last 40 years, to Israel having the bomb.

    Iran wants the bomb because it brings power and a deterrence factor. Her map is much bigger than the space between Tehran and Jerusalem. In her neighborhood, Pakistan, India, China, and Russia all have the bomb. Like Soviet Russia, as like Mao’s China and not-quite-Islamist Pakistan, the bomb lets a poor, stupid, people-oppressing, economy-thrashing despotism act like one of the Big Dogs. The mullahs want ’em some-a that.

    The first thing they want to do with it is squeeze the US out of the region, by subverting our allies and deterring us from doing anything about it. I’ve written about this on several occasions before: the big lesson from Cold War deterrence is that having a bomb enabled the USSR to deter AMERICA. We constrained ourselves not to fight effectively for territory as it fell to the Soviet orbit, and the reason, starting with the theory laid out in NSC-68 in 1950, was that we feared the possibility of nuclear brinkmanship with the Soviets more than we feared anything else. It doesn’t matter how you see this; what matters is how Bolshevik-style radicals, like Islamist extremists, see it. They see the US as deterrable and vulnerable to attrition — if someone can get the bomb.

    Regarding regime change in Iran, the good news is that it doesn’t have to be imposed from without. The people want to moderate, liberalize, and modernize their government. If they can find a way to do it, they will. It won’t necessarily look like Cincinnatus and the gang saving the Roman Republic — and definitely not like the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 — but it will look different from what’s going on today. Rouhani doesn’t look different. He’s same-old, same-old: a ratty, 10-year-old lipstick somebody found in the bottom of her purse, being slathered on a pig.

    1. I’m gonna continue with the heretical comments….cause what I I elicit from your responses.. is even better than your posts sometimes 🙂

      On this particular issue there’s a lot of back and forth that can take us into the depth of deterrence theory. It’s a little late in the evening here, but I’ll be going through Hans Morgenthau to Ken Waltz (and in between) tomorrow to see if I can throw you I few curve balls 🙂

    2. Ok we are going to need a relief pitcher from the bullpen on those curveballs… getting to the bottom of this is going to take way too long for yours truly.

      Let me just repeat, I don’t want the Iranians getting the bomb either. I wouldn’t mind one bit if Iran liberalized from within. That would be great news, just want to further the debate on this whole business.

      A few scattered points

      The Iranian regime and Iran want the bomb for defense.
      Iran had a nuclear weapons program before the mullahs and will have one after the mullahs. The point you bring up about her other neighbors is true. You have just made their case. But there’s nothing like focusing on the Israeli’s clandestine nuke development as an excuse to further one’s own program. Curiously it was Khomeini who halted it for a while. Don’t assume the wily Iranians wish to squeeze us out of the region under any circumstances. They might need us as a counterweight in their long term view of the region’s balance of power.

      Our nukes deterred the Soviets just as much as Soviet nukes deterred us. Defending NATO (for example) from it’s inception to the eighties without the use of nuclear weapons was improbable. Deterrence works both ways.

      Israeli nukes are not a stabilizing factor. Who is Israel going to nuke in an outbreak of hostilities? The nukes didn’t prevent 1973, and what stopped it was American and Soviet intervention. Israel’s main security issue is demographic. No coalition of neighboring states can defeat Israel militarily today. But having 50% of the population under your jurisdiction as hostile enemy combatants certainly can. Nukes, (big nukes anyway) are useless in this case. 99% of Israeli security problems are Palestinian related.

      And about the people-oppressing, economy-thrashing despotic part. After systematically killing innocents in robotic strikes, a trillion spent on a DECADE plus of war, and the extent of this (unreformed) domestic spying business… I wouldn’t be too hasty about casting those type of stones.

      1. “The Iranian regime and Iran want the bomb for defense.”

        “Iran had a nuclear weapons program before the mullahs and will have one after the mullahs.”

        The Shah had and the Mullah’s have, entirely different motivational goals. The Shah wanted it for regional prestige but had no plans for expansion. The Mullah’s want nukes for regional prestige, so as to be, first among equals in a loose future alliance of jihadist states. They also want it as a preventative measure for when they increase their terrorism, which they will do once they have nukes.

        The ‘wily’ Iranians wish to squeeze ALL extra-regional players out of the region. That future nuclear armed alliance of jihadist states will need no counterweight.

        Yes, among rational actors, nukes are a two-edged deterrent.

        Israeli nukes are a deterring factor and they have prevented attacks upon Israel.

        “Who is Israel going to nuke in an outbreak of hostilities?”

        “The nukes didn’t prevent 1973, and what stopped it was American and Soviet intervention.”

        Partially true. Had the Americans and Soviets not intervened Israel would had to use its nukes. Push Israel’s back against the wall hard enough and the Samson Option becomes the ONLY choice. Nixon and Kissinger knew this and convinced the Soviets that intervention was necessary.

        Israel’s main security issue is NOT demographic, that is a secondary factor. Israel’s main security issue is that it believes it cannot survive without American support and America’s left is using that belief as leverage to slowly bring Israel to the gallows.

        ” a trillion spent on a DECADE plus of war”

        “Since the beginning of the War on Poverty, government has spent $19.8 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars) on means-tested welfare. In comparison, the cost of all military wars in U.S. history from the Revolutionary War through the current war in Afghanistan has been $6.98 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2011 dollars).* The War on Poverty has cost three times as much as all other wars combined.” * Stephen Daggett, “Costs of Major U.S. Wars,” Congressional Research Service, June 29, 2010 (my emphasis)

      2. I’m not ignoring you, jgets, just haven’t had time to respond in the last couple of days. More later.

  3. jgets, a few scattered responses to yours of 12 August.

    Note at the outset: If you haven’t visited The Iran Page (tabbed above), please check it out. I’ve written about a lot of these topics before, and most of the relevant posts are linked there.

    1. Of course the Iranians want the bomb for defense; everyone who wants the bomb wants it for defense. That doesn’t mean they don’t also want to use it as an umbrella for offensive policies. In fact, the mullahs have spoken of it in just those terms.


    2. US nukes did not deter the Soviets from exporting Marxist insurrection and intimidating US clients and even allies. Americans are almost never capable of recognizing this, even when hit over the head by it; we tend to think in terms of whether the USSR directly attacked us. But the real security problem in the Cold War was the attrition campaign of the Soviets against third parties, which they accomplished with little or ineffective pushback from us until the 1980s. The reason was that we self-deterred, pulling our punches and limiting our options, due ultimately to the fear of a nuclear confrontation.

    After 1917, the very first time that a nation taken over by Soviet-backed communists reverted to non-communist rule was in the little Caribbean nation of Grenada in 1983. The very first time. We lost every round prior to that, with one “draw” on the Korean peninsula. There was more than one reason for this, but after 1949, when the Soviets got the bomb, and NSC-68, the January 1950 statement of our national strategy in a nuclear world, the controlling reason — the one the other reasons mapped back to — was the calculation that we had to cede pieces of the world to Soviet communism to avoid a nuclear war.

    I wrote about this in 2009:


    3. Of course Israel’s nukes are a stabilizing factor. Whom would she attack with them? That would depend on circumstances. I doubt the situation will arise in which Israel has to make a preemptive attack with nukes. She would at most use them in a counter-attack.

    The point of nukes is to avert the initial attack by the other guy, and limit what he thinks is possible. The Middle East has settled down considerably since Israel got nukes, compared to what it was before 1970. Prior to her nuke-up, Israel was attacked three times by an Arab coalition (1948, 1956, 1967). After it, she came under conventional military attack once, by Egypt (1973).

    Israel’s nukes are by no means the only factor in overall regional stability — the expiration of the Soviet Union was a big one as well, along with the demise of Saddam — but the Israeli nukes are an important factor. Even if all else had somehow remained equal for the last 40 years, in the absence of Israeli nukes, the Arab Spring would have gotten a lot worse than it has. Islamist radicals would have a much more aggressive view of what moves would be possible against Israel today. They would be fighting harder for a nearer “prize.” As it is, they know that it’s too hard to breach Israel’s defenses right now, and they need to concentrate on building up their own positions, in the governments of Lebanon (where Hezbollah is already established), Egypt, Syria, and — eventually; it’s coming — Jordan.

    4. Iran will take any advantage she gets from the US presence in the region, until she doesn’t need it anymore. No international security situation is permanent. Iran would be happy to admit American commerce to a region she had control over, as long as it was via a “tribute” system: we pay what is effectively a “toll,” or a bribe; they benefit. No Asian power has ever failed to try to establish a tribute system for regional commercial access.

    5. Everyone who knows people-oppressing and economy-thrashing despotism when he sees it is eligible to call it out. America is well down this path now, and I have been very clear about that. We need to clean up our act. (I have been very critical of Obama’s drone war, for that matter.)

    That doesn’t mean Americans can’t criticize the evil done by the mullahs to their people. It certainly doesn’t mean we should pretend there is no difference in outcomes between people-liberating and people-oppressing government. It makes all the difference that can be made on this earth.

    1. this tread’s gonna be open for a long time if I follow up on your points in detail. Maybe I’ll give it shot over the weekend.

      To distill thing a little. In your view, all commentary on the despicable nature of it aside, is the Iranian regime a rational actor?

      I know GB thinks in isn’t. I, (as usual) cannot be certain, but lean to yes, it is. It is not an easy question.

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