Figuring Out Fordow

Last week, my ace research assistant, Ivanka Bazashka, and I published in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists an analysis of Iran’s recently revealed Fordow uranium enrichment facility, lying just north of Qom.  In summary, we concluded that the timing of the construction and announcement of the facility did not prove an Iranian intention to deceive the agency but certainly raises many troubling questions.  The facility is far too small for a commercial enrichment facility, raising additional serious concerns that it might be intended as a covert facility to produce highly enriched uranium (HEU) for weapons.  But we also argued that the facility is actually too small to be of great use to a weapons program.  A quite plausible explanation is that the facility was meant to be one of several covert enrichment facilities and simply the only one to be discovered.  We believe, however, that it is significant that the Iranians assured the agency that they “did not have any other nuclear facilities that were currently under construction or in operation that had not yet been declared to the Agency” because any additional facilities uncovered in the future will be almost impossible to explain innocently. This, however, does not preclude Iran from making a decision to construct new enrichment facilities in the future.

Well, in just a few days, things have changed.  We immediately got a lot of emails (some of them quite rude!) challenging our numbers.  The Bulletin does not allow for lots of technical detail and we could not put our calculation in the article.  So Ivanka and I have written an explanation of the derivation of our numbers.  It is the first of a new format for the FAS website, FAS Issue Briefs.  I expect that Hans, Matt, Nishal, and others will make good use of the format in the future.  You can see our calculations in Calculating the Capacity of Fordow.

We show in our Issue Brief that the oft-cited performance of the Iranian centrifuge is based, at best, on hearsay, and, at worst, circular citations.  Reporters get away all the time with citing “high level officials” and the like but analysts do not have that luxury.  The reason that we are discussing the Iranian enrichment program is because of grave, immediate policy implications.  This not just a question of when Iran might get the bomb, but should we take military action, should we go to war, and when.  Ivanka and I conclude that the approach most often taken for estimating Iranian performance is unreliable and will almost certainly overestimate their capabilities.  We demonstrate an alternative based on universally accepted, publicly available data.

In particular, we should be very wary of Iranian statements of their own capability.  If I said that the National Ignition Facility at Livermore National Laboratory was going to achieve break even laser fusion within a year and cited an interview with the director of NIF, everyone would laugh at me.  Statements by Iran about Iran’s capability should be taken with an equally large grain of salt.  The Iranians brag about their technological virtuosity, specifically that, in spite of sanctions, they are still able to enrich uranium.   It is obviously a matter of national pride.  But do they explain to their taxpayers that they are spending billions of dollars to struggle to reproduce technology that the Europeans left behind as obsolete a half century ago and even that they do inefficiently?  Our calculations, based on publicly available IAEA reports, shows that Iran is operating its centrifuges at 20-25% of what we might expect.

The second big change is Iran’s announcement of ten new future enrichment facilities.  We argued in our Bulletin article that it was significant that Iran told the IAEA that there were no undeclared facilities waiting to be discovered.  Ivanka was more skeptical, saying that this declaration meant little if the Iranians used their definition of when they were required to “declare.”  I thought it more significant because any future discovery would be impossible to portray as innocent.  On the other hand, we also said that the Fordow facililty did not make much sense except as part of a network of clandestine facilities.  Well, the Iranians helped resolve that question when a few days later they announced that they were going to build ten new enrichment facilities, probably similar to Fordow.  It is getting harder and harder to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.

7 thoughts on “Figuring Out Fordow

  1. The lack of logic in such discussions is often extremely charming. Iran was accused by many of having too small a facility in Fordow to be explicable in terms of a commercial/civil enrichment project.

    Now that they have said they plan an additional 10 facilities I suppose this makes their enrichment capability more in tune with what the pundits would have expected in a civil program.

    Note I am not taking sides on whether or not Iran is aiming for nuclear weapons capability — I am pointing out the tortured logic being used, intentionally or not, to drum up support for sanctions or war. Both of which would be counter-productive to the United States national interests.

    I have out lined my view clearly in the Washington Post:

    Iran’s Nuclear Aspirations

    Tuesday, October 28, 2008

    Daniel R. Coats and Charles S. Robb are correct that a nuclear-armed Iran would be intolerable and would cause a domino effect of further nuclear weaponization in the region [“Stopping a Nuclear Tehran,” op-ed, Oct. 23].

    However, to deal properly with Iran, one must not overhype the threat but rather attempt to understand Iran’s motivations, something that the National Defense University at Fort McNair has done. A 2005 NDU study concluded that Iran desires nuclear weapons mainly because it feels strategically isolated and that “possession of such weapons would give the regime legitimacy, respectability, and protection.” In other words, Iran desires nuclear weapons for the purpose of deterrence, just like every other nuclear-armed nation. The NDU study continued, “[W]e judge, and nearly all experts consulted agree, that Iran would not, as a matter of state policy, give up its control of such weapons to terrorist organizations and risk direct U.S. or Israeli retribution.” And it said the “United States has options short of war that it could employ to deter a nuclear-armed Iran and dissuade further proliferation.”

    The most sensible way to approach the Iranian nuclear issue would be to work seriously toward confidence building and eliminating nuclear weapons from the entire Middle East, including those in Israel.


    Cambridge, Mass.


    The NDU report is here:

  2. Your speculation about the purpose of the Fordow site conveniently ignores one option: that it was in fact intended as a anti-bomb bunker just as the Iranians say it is. Oh but of course we can’t possibly give any credit to the Iranians now, can we? After all, they’re always “deceptive” and “troubling” and yet our politicians are sterling examples of righteousness.

    The Iranian announcement of plans to build 10 new enrichment facilities IN THE FUTURE does not contradict their statement that there are no new facilities in existence NOW. That should be obvious.

    I also find it quite laughable that you say that Iranian statements about their centrifuges should not be taken at face value, and yet Iranian boasts about building 10 new Natanz-sized enrichment facilities should be taken at face value.

    Finally, note that none of this would have happened had the US not interfered with the IAEA’s overt technical assistance program with Iran in 1983 to develop enrichment technology, or if the US had accepted Iran’s repeated compromise offers which included opening Iran’s nuclear program to joint participation by the US and imposing voluntary restrictions on the program.

  3. Really, this is brilliant analysis!! Just brilliant. I notice that towards the end you develop a defence for using 25Kg as the SQ for the amount of WgU that Iran would need for one bomb, citing the IAEA’s official SQ.

    In fact, I think your conclusion would apply even if you use an SQ of 12-15Kg of WgU. An SQ at this level implies sophisticated bomb design. That means the Iranians would need to test that design before they deploy an actual military weapon using a sophisticated design. Which means you end up with a real SQ again of about 24-30Kg of WgU for one reliable military weapon.

    One might want to argue that Iran would forgo reliability in order to develop a crash deterrent, but surely those advocating the RRW (who are most hawkish on Iran and much else besides) wouldn’t want to do that. After all their case for RRW is built on linking reliability and deterrence.

    I did see the ISIS critique of the “Bulletin” article where they strongly imply that FAS is “biased”. I notice here your reference at the above blog entry on war and peace, which seems to be a dig at the slogan that ISIS has adopted.

    After the spat between ISIS and Glaser and Kemp on breakout and now this, perhaps David Albright should think twice before dropping hints about bias.

  4. Concerning “giving Iran the benefit of the doubt”, Andrew Campbell wrote and interesting piece for the Australian “National Observer” in which he described “Iranian deception modalities”. Lying to, deceiving, and breaking promises to non-muslims is permitted in the Shia sect as practiced by Iran according to Campbell. (Campbell, Andrew. Iran and Deception Modalities: The Reach of ‘Taqiyya’, ‘Kitman’, ‘Khod’eh’ and ‘Taarof’ [online]. National Observer; Issue 70; Spring 2006; 25-48. Availability: ISSN: 1442-5548. [cited 07 Dec 09].)

  5. What I can’t understand….

    Is why does a country with as much desert and sunshine as Iran even NEED nuclear power.

    surely if they had invested even half of the money spent on the nuclear program on solar technologies they would be able to cheaply and safely produce more than enough power for thier grid?

    the country is large enough so that solar power stations could be scattered far and wide enough to avoid local weather conditions having an adverse effect,

    It is this fact that makes me doubt Irans “peacefull” nuclear power programme.

  6. Louis Roylo — do you suppose it was them evil lying muslim shia that lied about WMDs in IRaq? If if the Iranians are lying, then why has the IAEA failed to locate an iota of evidence about any weapons program in Iran?

    Incidentally, the Shi’ite religous doctrine of Taqqiya simply says that a person can deny their religious faith if admitting it would cause them danger — it is not a general license to lie. When it comes to lying, lets remember who gave WMDs to Saddam. It wasn’t Iran.

  7. When Rober Gates says in Islamabad that it was mistake on the part of USA to have severed Military relationship with Pakistan due to its covert nuclear programme, what does he convey to Iran?
    When Saudi Arabia is ready to give bases to Israel for covert airstrikes on Iran nuclear fascilities, what message it gives Iran?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *