Iranian site prompts U.S. to rethink assessment

By Joby Warrick
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

VIENNA -- Early Sunday, if all goes as planned, U.N. nuclear inspectors will travel to a military base near Qom, Iran, for a first look at one of the country's most closely guarded nuclear secrets. Inside bunkers dug into the side of a mountain, the visitors will be escorted through a nearly completed uranium plant that Iran's president has termed "very ordinary."

But less than a month after its existence was publicly revealed, many U.S. and European intelligence officials say they are increasingly convinced that the site was intended explicitly for making highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.

The Qom site has undermined one of the U.S. intelligence community's key assessments of Iran's nuclear program: the assumption that Tehran had abandoned plans to enrich uranium in secret, according to two former senior U.S. officials involved in high-level discussions about Iran.

A landmark U.S. intelligence assessment in 2007 concluded that any secret uranium-processing activities "probably were halted" in 2003 and had not been restarted. Other key judgments of the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate, including the view that Iran has suspended research on nuclear-warhead design, are also being reevaluated in light of new evidence, the two former officials said.

"Qom changed a lot of people's thinking, especially about the possibility of secret military enrichment" of uranium, said one of the former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the assessments remain classified.

In interviews, intelligence officials from the United States and allied nations said their scrutiny of the Qom site was longer and deeper than previously acknowledged, and included acquiring detailed plans on how the facility would be outfitted and operated.

Intercepted communications revealed a key piece of data: Iranian plans to place only 3,000 centrifuge machines in the plant. That number is too small to furnish fuel for a civilian power plant, but just big enough to supply Iran annually with up to three bombs' worth of weapons-grade fuel, the former officials said.

Insights into the spy community's evolving views about Qom were provided by current and former intelligence and government officials in interviews in the United States, Central Europe and several Middle Eastern countries. In nearly all cases, the officials spoke on the condition that their names and nationalities not be revealed, citing the secrecy of the ongoing assessments of Iran's nuclear program.

The officials acknowledged that the Qom complex is not yet operational and that no uranium had been enriched at the time the site was revealed last month. They also acknowledged there is no "smoking-gun" evidence that Iran plans to make bomb-grade uranium. But the officials said the Qom site was structurally suited for that purpose, and they concluded that there is no plausible role for the plant in Iran's civilian nuclear power infrastructure.

Iran officially notified the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency about the existence of the Qom site in a letter on Sept. 21. U.S. and European officials say Iranian officials learned that the United States was aware of the site andrushed to disclose the facility's existence to head off accusations that it was running a covert nuclear program.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said the Qom site is part of Iran's legitimate, civilian nuclear power program, contending that he planned all along to disclose the facility to the U.N. nuclear watchdog and to allow international oversight.

Ali Akbar Salehi, who heads Iran's civilian Atomic Energy Organization, said the facility was built underground at a military installation to shield it from foreign attack, and also to save money. The intention was "to safeguard our nuclear facilities and reduce the cost of an active defense system," Salehi told reporters in Tehran.

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