Iran's 'secret' nuclear plant: an instant reaction
by GARETH SMYTH reporting from Ireland
25 Sep 2009 22:41
[ comment ] Less than a week before Iran is due to meet six world powers, including the United States, over its atomic programme, the news of a "secret" Iranian nuclear site could hardly be more timely.
The London Financial Times reports a "covert" facility near the holy city of Qom "concealed from international inspectors". The newspaper's website says "Iran had been building a secret nuclear plant to enrich uranium".
Throughout the media, there are suggestions that the "discovery" of the nuclear site, where Iran will enrich uranium, helps justify tougher sanctions or even "Israel's approach", which could mean a military attack.
There are echoes in all this of 2002, when the Mujahedin-e Khalq, the exiled Iranian opposition group, unleashed a media frenzy by "revealing" Iran was constructing nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak.
But today's press statement from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN body that monitors Tehran's nuclear programme, reveals that the question of "secrecy" is far from straightforward.
The IAEA confirms it was informed on Monday by Iran in a letter that a "new pilot fuel enrichment plant is under construction", with enrichment levels up to 5%. The statement adds that "the agency also understands from Iran that no nuclear material has been introduced into the facility".
Tehran has said, adds the IAEA, that it would provide further information at "an appropriate and due time".
Exactly what that means is legalistic but controversial.
Under the basic requirements of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty (NPT), a state is obliged to tell the IAEA about any site 180 days before any nuclear material is introduced.
In 2003, Iran agreed to a stiffer requirement, the so-called Code 3.1, which required the agency be told when a new facility came into construction. This was also a time of substantive talks between Iran and the European Union -- and was also the year when Iran signed the Additional Protocol (AP) to the NPT, which gave the IAEA powers of snap inspection.
When negotiations with the EU broke down and the IAEA referred Iran to the UN security council over the nuclear programme, Tehran informed the IAEA in 2006 it would no longer implement the Additional Protocol.
Later, in March 2007, it said it would no longer implement Code 3.1.
Iran's argument was the same in both cases: that neither agreement had been approved by parliament, whose ratification is required for international treaties.
Tehran stressed it would continue to follow its obligations under the NPT but that the granting of additional powers to the IAEA had been entirely voluntary and hence could be withdrawn.
The matter is legalistic, but then Iran's case all along has been based on its "legal rights". Tehran has dismissed as "political" the UN security council resolutions demanding it suspend uranium enrichment.
Certainly, the legal details are less important than the overall dynamics. Unless a compromise can be reached, Iran seems set on continuing its nuclear programme.
But the reaction today to the news of Iran's "secret" facility is hardly likely to encourage or empower those on either side who want a compromise.
As one analyst told me: "He who screams loudest gets heard in this day and age. Obviously those in favour of bringing Iran to its knees will be screaming very loudly over this, whatever the evidence."
In an interview in 2004, Ali Akbar Salehi, now head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, was scornful over the "revelation" of the Natanz plant.
"Through the force of the media, they made the public believe that our activity in Natanz was a secret activity," he said. "There was no secret activity in Natanz. How can it be secret if it has a few hundred acres, and a sign saying 'Atomic Energy Organisation' and the buses that go from Tehran to Natanz stop at a station called 'Atomic station'?
"Yes, we didn't tell .. the IAEA, but we didn't have to. Under the safeguards agreement, we have to tell the IAEA only 180 days before we enter the nuclear material into the facility."
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