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Iran's nuclear disclosures: why they matter

A secret nuclear site. ‘Project 110.’ Offers to ship fuel abroad. Part of Iran’s quest to be regional power?

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That has led many experts outside Iran to this conclusion: If the Iranians want to produce fissile material for weapons, they would be likely to do so at a hidden site. Natanz represents their first fuel cycle. This hidden site, or sites, would constitute the second.

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The US intelligence community has predicted this. Two years ago, in their 2007 National Intelligence Estimate of Iran's nuclear intentions and capabilities, US analysts said: "We assess with moderate confidence that Iran probably would use covert facilities – rather than its declared nuclear sites – for the production of highly enriched uranium for a weapon."

So, is Qom this covert facility?

Iran says that it is not and that, like Natanz, it is for civilian uses.

If it were intended to be a secret site, then it is likely that somewhere is also a hidden facility for producing uranium hexafluoride, the centrifuges' feedstock. In fact, some proliferation experts suggest that Iran may have a network of such sites. Or, if it does not already have such a network, Tehran may now start building one, because Qom has been discovered.

That would make keeping tabs on Iran's program something like a high-stakes game of Whac-A-Mole. Miss, and perhaps Tehran gets a nuclear arsenal.

"They hid Qom, and our intelligence agencies found it in the nick of time," says David Albright, a former weapons inspector and president of the Institute for Science and International Security. "We can't count on that next time."

Conflicting intelligence reports

Obtaining fissile material, such as plutonium or highly enriched uranium, is the hardest step in producing the bomb. But it is not the only step. Nuclear weapons are complex devices that require high-voltage firing systems and associated detonators. Pieces must be machined to incredibly precise tolerances if they are to fit together and work.

Handing someone the blueprint of a bomb is not tantamount to giving him nuclear capability. Producing the stuff from that blueprint is a difficult art.

According to US intelligence, Iran has worked on such components in a weaponization process. But US agencies also conclude that Tehran stopped that work in 2003.

Intelligence analysts in some other countries, such as Germany, disagree – and insist Iran is still busy with weaponization work. Apparently that is also the view of some officials at the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

An IAEA report leaked to the press in early October alleges that Iran's Project 110 is continuing its clandestine effort to produce a nuclear warhead small enough to sit atop a missile. "Project 111" is corresponding work aimed at reshaping space inside the nose cone of a Shahab 3 missile so that the warhead will fit.

The IAEA report concludes that Iran has "sufficient information to be able to design and produce a workable implosion nuclear device." But the paper has fierce detractors within the agency, who contend that some of the intelligence behind this conclusion could be forged.