Waiting for Answers on Fordo: What IAEA Inspections Will Tell Us

by Ivanka Barzashka and Ivan Oelrich

After a cascade of disclosures and official announcements, followed by a great deal of conjecture from experts and the media, the Fordo enrichment plant, Iran’s newest enrichment facility located in the mountains near Qom, opened its doors on October 25 to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections. The US, France, and Britain accuse Iran of building the facility covertly and “challenging the basic compact at the center of the non-proliferation regime.” Iran claims the accusations are “hypothetical” and “fantasy” and are part of a conspiracy against Iran’s nuclear program. The Agency has an indispensable role of providing an objective technical account of the facility and ultimately determining whether Iran violated its Safeguards Agreement. But how much can we expect to learn from the first visit to the facility and would that provide sufficient information to resolve the accusations made against Iran?

The text under the Iranian flag with the atom symbol says, "Nuclear power is our undeniable right."
The text under the Iranian flag with the atomic symbol says, "Nuclear power is our undeniable right."

Location

With a brief letter to the IAEA on September 21, Iran formally announced the existence of the third enrichment plant new Qom, in addition to its commercial-scale Fuel Enrichment Plant (FEP) and the Pilot Fuel Enrichment Plant (PFEP) at Natanz. It is not clear whether Iran provided the exact location of the new enrichment facility in the original letter to the IAEA. The White House said that the facility was located near Qom and was “very heavily protected, very heavily disguised,” but also did not disclose the exact location. The same day, Western media quoted Western diplomatic sources saying that the enrichment site was “on a mountain on a former Iranian Revolutionary Guards missile site to the north-east of Qom on the Qom-Aliabad highway”. This unleashed a frantic search by the expert community, which days later produced satellite images of potential sites. The best analysis came from Jane’s IHS, which placed the enrichment facility 20 miles (or about 32 km) northeast of Qom.

The head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization (AEOI), Ali Akbar Salehi, stated on October 26 that the enrichment plant was located 100 km from Tehran. Since Qom is by road 156 km southwest of Tehran, this places the location about 56 km north of the holy city, which is different from Jane’s location. Most likely, Salehi’s statement was only an approximation and is therefore consistent with Western accounts. The AEOI, however, did not release images of the facility.

However, a statement by the Office of Public Relations of AEOI, reprinted by Iranian news channel IRINN on October 28, requested that media refer to the nuclear site as Fordo, not Qom. Fordo, which means heaven (from the Farsi word “ferdos”), is a village 50 km south of Qom, but still in the province of Qom. According to the city’s official website, which is “subtly” adorned with an Iranian flag superimposed with a symbol of the atom, the enrichment site was located 160 km south of Tehran, placing it just south of Qom and north of Fordo.

The apparent contradiction was later resolved. The name of the facility was not due to geographic proximity, rather to appreciate the courage of the great number of casualties suffered by the town of Fordo during the Iran-Iraq war. Although, the website of Fordo (make sure your sound is turned off if you are in the office) may not be the most trustworthy source of information, the official name of Iran’s new enrichment plant is Fordo. This is what it will most probably be called in coming IAEA reports (perhaps, FFEP, or Fordo Fuel Enrichment Plant?), so use Fordo instead of Qom if you want to be up to date.

IAEA inspections will most definitely resolve the question of exact location, since inspectors have to physically get to the site. The exact coordinates will not become available, so Jane’s satellite imagery are and probably will be our best bet.

Timing

Timing is crucial in determining Iranian intention and whether the disclosure of the new facility met legal requirements. There are several important dates to watch out for – when a decision was made to construct the facility, when the construction actually began, when nuclear material was or will be introduced and when the facility was announced to the IAEA. The only date we know for certain is the last one – October 21.

The White House, learning that Iran had informed the IAEA of the Fordo plant on October 21, told other world leaders during the meetings at the UN in New York on October 23 The US and European nations presented a joint intelligence presentation to the IAEA on October 24, followed by more technical meetings on the 25th. On October 25, Obama, Sarkozy, and Brown made a public announcement about the facility during the G-20 meeting in Pittsburgh. The same day, Salehi announced the facility domestically.

According to Iran, there are no centrifuges installed at the Fordo enrichment plant and no nuclear material has entered the site. Salehi gives a time range from 1.5 to 2 years before the facility is operational, a year before the 6 months mandated by what Ahmadinejad claims is its legal obligations to the IAEA. According to US officials, the facility was most likely to be “at least a few months, perhaps more” from being operational. If the U.S. number is correct, then inspectors are likely to see centrifuges installed. At Natanz, it took about a year to install the first 18-cascades (about 3,000 centrifuges). Even if the Iranians have gotten more efficient and are able to install the machines in half the time, some machine installation would have already begun if operation is less than six months away. If that is the case, it is theoretically possible that nuclear material could have been introduced already. Instead of following normal practice and waiting until the entire facility had been completed, Iran started feeding each cascade at Natanz with UF6 as soon as it had been installed, possibly for political bragging rights and possibly because they were feeling their way forward with a new design. With their greater experience now, we cannot predict which path Iran will follow at Fordo.

The IAEA will do a base environmental sampling, which will show whether nuclear material has been introduced in the facility at some point in time. If the results are positive, then this will be an apparent breach of legal obligations and will open a whole can of worms, raising question where the material came from and bringing up bigger issues of material accountancy and intent.

When did construction of the facility start? US, French, and British intelligence agencies had been aware of the site for several years and claim that the construction began before March 2007, when Iran unilaterally withdrew from the modified Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement. Although we haven’t seen any Iranian official position on when construction started, the Fordo village website (the same one that claims that the enrichment plant is between Fordo and Qom and not between Qom and Tehran) states that construction began in 2006, which would mean that a political decision was made around the time that Iran decided to resume uranium enrichment, which was followed by UN Security Council resolutions condemning the decision. The IAEA may be able to confirm when the decision was made based on documents and interviews with Iranians involved in the project. In the past, Iran has been slow and reluctant to provide these, so it may be some time before the Agency reveals the truth.

Capacity, number and type of machines

To estimate what the Fordo facility was designed to do, we need to know its separative capacity or the number and type of machines that it will hold. The letter to the IAEA and the initial statements from Iranian officials said that those details would be revealed later. Salehi said that Iran hopes to employ a new type of machine, more advanced than the IR-1, which is currently operational at FEP in Natanz. Iran has been testing 4 types of machines (IR-2, IR-2m, IR-3 and IR-4) at PFEP for a while now, so it is foreseeable that one of the new models will soon be ready for industrial application.

According to the US, Iran was planning on installing 3,000 machines, which would have been enough IR-1s for about a bomb’s worth of HEU a year. In an earlier blog, we discussed how US intelligence could have known and what could be done with that many machines. Iranian media have referred to 3,000 machines but Foreign Minister Mottaki said in an NPR interview the plan was to have 7,000 machines.

Iran has probably by now submitted design information to the IAEA as requested. The report will include the intended capacity and throughput of the facility, as well as the expected concentrations of the waste and product. However, inspectors can visually verify the number of machines installed, if those are in place, and can see whether they are different from the machines at Natanz. Visual inspection will not give much information about the potential output of the machines, but that can be deduced based on future data on overall performance.

Legality

According to the US, the construction of the Fordo facility is in clear violation of Security Council resolutions and it has called on Iran to suspend all of its enrichment-related activities there. Iran does not accept these resolutions, claiming they are in contradiction to its right under the NPT to pursue nuclear technology for peaceful goals and also continues operating centrifuges at Natanz.

The US claims that Iran was obligated, under a revision of Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements, which Iran agreed to in February 2003 (GOV/2003/40), to announce the facility to the IAEA as soon as a decision was made to begin construction. Iran counters that, in March 2007 it informed the IAEA that it had “suspended” the implementation of the revised Code 3.1 and would “revert” to the 1976 version, which only requires states to submit design information “no later than 180 days before the facility is scheduled to receive nuclear material for the first time” (GOV/2007/22). Salehi attributes this decision to “unfair entry of the U.N. Security Council into Iran’s nuclear dossier”. The IAEA finally concluded that, in accordance with Article 39 of Iran’s Safeguards Agreement, agreed Subsidiary Arrangements cannot be modified unilaterally (GOV/2007/22). The issue was brought up again in the latest IAEA report, noting that Iran had not yet provided design information for the Darkhovin nuclear plant (GOV/2009/55). El Baradei has stated explicitly that “Iran should have informed the IAEA the day they had decided to construct the [Fordo] facility.”

Moreover, the US insists that, in any case, construction started prior to the March 2007 when even Iran agrees it was subject to the Code 3.1 rules and failure to disclose the activity means that Iran was purposefully concealing the enrichment plant. It is possible that Iran would say that they were just digging a hole on the side of a mountain (there are many such installations in that area, as FAS has discovered) and the decision to use it as a centrifuge plant was made much later.

It seems that the Agency is already firm on the issue of legality. Inspections will do little to change that. What we should be expecting in the next report to the Board of Governors is a phrase that starts with “Iran has failed to provide design information”.

Purpose and Intent

According to Salehi, this installation is “semi-industrial,” although the letter to the IAEA described it as a “pilot plant.” Salehi explains that “in any technical issue we have pilot, semi-industrial, and then industrial steps. What we mean by semi-industrial in our nuclear program is that the number of centrifuges is not going to be more than a certain amount and a higher enrichment level is not important.” Later on, he specifies that the facility will enrich up to 5 percent.

Salehi further states that the facility has both passive and active defense – the former referring to its underground location covered by rock and the latter alluding to its proximity to a Revolutionary Guard base equipped with surface-to-air missiles. Persistent hints of Israeli attack, as well as Israel’s bombing of an alleged Syrian nuclear military facility in 2007 and an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981 provide grounds for Iranian worry. An interesting explanation is given by a website called the Iranian Revolution Document Center: by building fortified enrichment facilities, the value of an aerial attack against Natanz is greatly diminished since it will not stop Iranian enrichment. Thus, Fordo serves as a deterrent to an attack on Natanz.

The US has insisted, however, that the “size and configuration of the facility is inconsistent with a peaceful program” (for a more thorough analysis, see an earlier blog post). That the Fordo facility might provide a basis for a possible nuclear weapons breakout is an obvious concern, especially if suspicions persist that the Iranians had hoped and expected to keep the facility secret. The size of the facility is suspicious. Based on overhead photos and statements from the Iranians, the facility does not seem to be large enough to be economically viable as an enrichment facility for a commercial nuclear reactor. It might be sized appropriately, however, for a modest nuclear weapon production program. (A plant to power a large nuclear reactor has the capacity to produce about twenty nuclear weapons a year.)

The White House admits that its public announcement on October 25 was prompted by intelligence that Iran knew that the US knew of the facility. Had Iran not found out, the US and its allies would have waited until “actual construction caught up with intent,” although the White House claims that “certainly within the last few months, we think we’ve had a very strong basis on which to make our argument.” Based on this, we can conclude at the time of disclosure Fordo was close to, but not quite at, a stage where construction reveals intent.

It is unclear what intent the US had in mind, since the White House stated that “from the very beginning, [the US] had information indicating that the intent of this facility was as a covert centrifuge facility.” Intent could mean simply to enrich uranium covertly or to produce highly-enriched uranium. However, a covert centrifuge facility makes sense if the intention is to produce weapon-grade uranium. (Iran might also keep it secret to forestall preemptive attack.) But, if the US knew that Iran was planning on producing HEU prior to 2007 (the White House claims that construction started prior to Iran’s unilateral withdrawal from the revised Code 3.1 of the Subsidiary Arrangements), it raises the question why the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate concluded that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program in 2003. (There are rumors that the intelligence community will be reconsidering its assessment.) So either the US wasn’t sure what Iran was constructing or the construction started after the NIE came out.

Conclusions

It is important to remember that this IAEA inspection is the first step in bringing Fordo under the safeguards, whose main goal is material accountancy or to ensure that no fissile material is diverted from a nuclear facility. Inspectors will probably do two technical assessments: verify the design information provided by Iran, upon the Agency’s request, and take base environmental samples to see whether nuclear material has been present. Cameras and seals will most likely not be introduced unless there is nuclear material in the vicinity, but key safeguards-relevant points in the facility will be considered based on design plans. The technical part is straightforward and provides important facts, but assessing the veracity of Iran’s statements and proving purpose and intent is hard. Inspectors will collect official documents and may conduct interviews with Iranian officials and scientists involved in the project to gather information on the decision-making, timing, support facilities (where parts are made, etc.) and the wider purpose of the facility in the context of Iran’s fuel cycle.

Inspections will be immediately effective in reconciling issues on the location of the plant (although concrete information will not be made public), enrichment capacity should be stated in the design information and type of machines could be assessed if installation has begun (which Iran is claiming has not). The specific purpose of the Fordo facility, which according to Iran is analogous to that of Natanz – to enrich uranium up to LEU levels for nuclear reactor fuel, is also stated in the documents. However, if Iran is actually uncertaint about the types of machines employed, the design information submitted is most likely preliminary or incomplete and will change. The Agency is firm in that the Islamic Republic should have declared the Fordo plant, as soon as a decision was made to construct it. However, based on past experience with Natanz, other questions, such as timing and purpose in the context of the entire fuel cycle, will be answered gradually as information is gathered by scientific methods, interviews, and collection of documents. This will be compared to information provided by other sources, such as foreign intelligence agencies.

The inspection may cast some light on Iran’s intentions by probing the consistency of its explanation of its overall program. Even if we accept Iran’s explanations entirely, the way the facility was announced shows that they are following only the strict letter of what they believe are their legal requirements. And there is a big gap between Iran and Vienna about what those obligations are.

The only way to prove ill intent may be to show that, even by Iran’s own standards, their story is inconsistent. That will be hard but the overall inspection exercise will provide some hints. Will the Iranians be prepared with what they consider to be all the required documentation? Or will there be long delays that suggest Iran is preparing documentation on the fly to retroactively explain what the inspectors are seeing on the ground? The state of development will give some idea of what the schedule might have been and whether the Iranians are meeting what they consider to be their six month warning time requirement. The Iranians can always drag out construction to meet their prediction of a year and a half to completion. But Natantz gives the world a rough guide to how long construction could have taken. Machines in place will strongly suggest a shorter schedule. The layout and planned number of machines will place some limits on what the capacity of the facility might be.

Once safegurards are in place, the nuclear weapon threat from Fordo will be no greater than from Natantz. The goals of the IAEA will remain the same: to give adequate warning if ever Iran begins to produce material that could be used for a weapon. As Iran’s total enrichment production increases, the relative accuracy of safeguard measurements has to increase to be sure of catching any given quantity of diverted material. If the Fordo facility eventually becomes a significant fraction of Iran’s total enrichment capacity, the stringency of IAEA accounting at Natantz may have to increase.

Of course, there is the question of whether Fordo is simply the only “secret” facility that we know about. The danger is that there are other facilities that can escape safeguards because the IAEA does not know about them. A clandestine enrichment facility would also require a clandestine conversion facility to produce UF6 feedstock because the output of the current facility at Esfahan is under IAEA inventory. We can never know exactly what we don’t know but there may be a silver lining to the cloud: Fordo might be another example of Iran trying, and failing, to keep a facility secret from Western intelligence, suggesting it is hard for Iran, or any other country ,to develop a clandestine capability. That may be too optimistic as a bottom line message, but the good news in this story is that the facility is now known and the IAEA kicked in exactly as it should.

We would like to thank our FAS intern, a native Farsi speaker who wished to remain nameless, for research support to this blog post. Please note that some of the articles referenced here are in Farsi, but can be easily translated using an online translator application.

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