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When did Iran begin building the Qom nuclear facility?

by MUHAMMAD SAHIMI in Los Angeles

29 Sep 2009 06:0210 Comments

Men with 'almond-shaped eyes' may hold a clue.

[ analysis ] Iran's nuclear program is back center stage, dominating national and international headlines.

After President Obama's press conference at the G20 summit, some experts were quick to declare that the Qom facility represented a gross violation of Iran's Safeguards Agreement, which it had signed in 1974. The chorus of hawkish U.S. senators and congressmen, who have been trying to get the Obama administration to impose crippling sanctions on Iran, or even possibly to launch a military attack, also followed.

The crucial question though is whether Iran violated its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement by failing to notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of its intention to construct the Qom facility in a timely manner, and whether it violated the agreement by proceeding with its plan, again without first declaring it to the IAEA? If it has, it would indeed represent a gross violation of Iran's international obligations.

As I explained in a previous article, to address the issue of Iran's possible violation of its Safeguards Agreement, one must answer the following questions first: When was the decision to construct the Qom facility made, and at what date did the construction actually begin?

First, some background.

In 1974, four years after Majles [parliament] ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (signed in 1967), Iran signed a Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA. Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements of the Safeguards Agreement stipulated that Iran must declare to the IAEA the existence of any nuclear facility no later than 180 days before introducing any nuclear materials into the facility.

That is why, despite the rhetoric, the construction of the Natanz uranium enrichment facility without IAEA notification was perfectly legal. As I explained two years ago, Iran asked the IAEA in 1983 to help it construct a uranium enrichment facility with full transparency. The IAEA had drawn plans for it, but the United States prevented it from happening, prompting Iran to begin planning for the facility without notifying the IAEA.

In 1992, the Board of Governors of the IAEA replaced the original Code 3.1 with the modified Code 3.1, which requires a member state to notify the IAEA "as soon as the decision to construct or to authorize construction has been taken, whichever is earlier" (emphasis is mine). It also developed the Additional Protocol to the Safeguards Agreement, which empowers the IAEA to carry out intrusive inspection of any site in any signatory state.

After the Natanz facility was officially declared to the IAEA in February 2003, Iran agreed on Feb. 26, 2003, to the modified Code 3.1. More precisely, Iran agreed to voluntarily implement the modified Code 3.1, and on Dec. 18, 2003, agreed to voluntarily observe the Additional Protocol, until the Majles ratified them (at which time it would have been obligated to do so).

In October 2005, Iran told the IAEA that it would no longer voluntarily implement the provisions of the Additional Protocol (Majles never ratified the Additional Protocol). The reason given was that the proposal that the European Union had presented to Iran in August 2005 fell way short.

From February 2003 to March 2007, Iran also observed the modified Code 3.1. But in February 2007, the Board of Governors of the IAEA sent Iran's nuclear dossier to the United Nations Security Council. Iran contends that the IAEA acted illegally. In retaliation for this illegal act, it notified the IAEA in March 2007 that it would no longer voluntarily abide by the modified Code 3.1 and reverted to the original Code 3.1 (that required 180 days notification).

In a previous article, I explained why Iran's action remains in dispute, and will not repeat the argument here.

In a document called Public Points for Qom Disclosure, the Obama administration states that the [Qom] facility has been under construction for several years. But it fails to say when the construction actually began. If the decision to construct the facility was made before Feb. 26, 2003, and the preliminary work also began before that date, then Iran has not violated any of its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement. In fact, there is nothing in the Safeguards Agreement that says that the modified Code 3.1 should be applied retroactively. If that were the case, even the Natanz facility would have been illegal, which it is not.

New information has since emerged indicating that planning and initial work on the Qom uranium enrichment facility actually began in the early 1990s, during the presidency of Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.

At that time, people in the city of Qom started talking about scientists and engineers with "almond-shaped eyes" -- East Asians. They were seen living in a large house on Maysam Street in the Salariyeh Complex in the holy city of Qom. They were shuttled around in cars that bore the logo of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

The house was next to Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi's, the former judiciary chief, and very close to the homes of Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi (who was the judiciary chief at the time, preceding Shahroudi), and Hojjatoleslam Morteza Agha Tehrani, who is now a Tehran deputy to the Majles and an ardent supporter of Mahmoud Ahamadinejad.

The presence of the experts with the almond-shaped eyes in Qom in the early 1990s appears to mark the beginning of the work on the Qom uranium enrichment facility. Due to the significance of Qom as one of the two important cities in Shia Islam, foreigners would not have been housed in the city unless the project that they were working on was highly important.

At the time, it was well-known in Qom that the foreigners' work was being conducted in the hills of Prophet Khezr Mountain near Qom, which is where the current Qom facility is located. [Khezr is a mythical religious character in Iran.]

At that time, the mountain was not part of a military base, but there was a military installation nearby that was (and still is) controlled by the Imam Sadegh Brigade of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), which was responsible for the security of the place. The base has been expanded and now includes the Qom enrichment facility in the mountain.

Brigade commander Mojtaba Zolnour, a mid-rank cleric, reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Zolnour is a hardliner reputed to be a culprit in the bloody crackdown on the peaceful post-election demonstrators.

After a while, the experts with the almond-shaped eyes left Qom. It was rumored at that time that they had been transferred to a hotel that belonged to the IRGC. There was another rumor that they had been transferred to Arak, the site of the heavy-water nuclear reactor that Iran is building. In any event, they were not seen in Qom again. This could mean that the work in Qom stopped at that time because the government placed a higher priority on the nuclear sites in Arak and Natanz.

Ali Larijani, the Majles Speaker, who is a deputy from Qom and was Iran's chief nuclear negotiator from 2005 to 2007, has said that the Qom facility does not possess any feature that can be used to accuse Iran of violating its obligations under its Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA.

If, as it appears, preliminary work on the Qom facility began in the early 1990s, Iran has not violated its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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10 Comments

Have a look at ISIS' recent comparison of satellite imagery done in 2005 (Google Earth) and 2009 (Digital Globe)of two possible sites:

http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/Qom_Imagery_Brief_25Sept2009.pdf.

The differences seem to be significant. I suppose, Iran started its work on the Qom site after declining from modified code 3.1 in March 2007.

Fahad / September 29, 2009 8:19 PM

Have a look at ISIS' recent comparison of satellite imagery done in 2005 (Google Earth) and 2009 (Digital Globe)of two possible sites:

http://www.isis-online.org/publications/iran/Qom_Imagery_Brief_25Sept2009.pdf.

The differences seem to be significant. I suppose, Iran started its work on the Qom site after declining from modified code 3.1 in March 2007.

Fahad / September 29, 2009 8:20 PM

That's interesting, Dr. Sahimi. There now appears the suggestion that the site began construction in the '90s.

I wonder if this explanation is being offered to the IAEA, and whether it will change in any way ElBaradei's recent opinion on the matter.

Mark Pyruz / October 2, 2009 5:26 AM

I don't see how it is "OK" for Israel to have nuclear weapons and Iran not to have. I don't believe in nuclear weapons or nuclear energy, but those, who have them, should not get to tell others, that they can't.
The US and Israel are doing horrible things with them, and shouldn't have a right to dictate to anyone.

JoAnn / October 2, 2009 11:12 PM

What horrible things Israel or USA are doing with their nuclear weapons, JoAnn?

kathy / October 4, 2009 7:18 AM

But it fails to say when the construction actually began. If the decision to construct the facility was made before Feb. 26, 2003, and the preliminary work also began before that date, then Iran has not violated any of its obligations under the Safeguards Agreement.

It is my understanding that the modified Safeguards Agreement covered new construction as well as modifications to existing facilities. Even if ground was broken at the Qom site before 2003, surely the bulk of construction - which was pretty clearly done after 2003 - would count as "modifications", and thus require disclosure to the IAEA?

MikeF / October 5, 2009 1:34 AM

Please tell me JoAnn what horrible things the US and Israel are doing with nuclear weapons. And what do you make of the fact that on several occasions Iran has threatened to wipe Israel off the map?

Shoshana / October 5, 2009 5:00 AM

MikeF searches for hairs to split, which is fine.
But he altered the hair.

MikeF said, "It is my understanding...as well as **modifications to existing facilities**. Then he asks if "construction" counts as a "modification" - dropping his own words "to existing facilities".

"Original construction" is not a modification to "existing facilities".

JP / October 9, 2009 1:24 PM

Down with israel, biggest lier in the world. sanctions on israel!

Hella / July 27, 2010 6:44 PM

israel is the sole threat to world peace, why dont we sanction this horrific nutty regime?

Hank / December 4, 2010 7:44 PM