New revelations from an Iranian opposition group about what it claims is a secret nuclear facility could raise fresh questions about Iran’s credibility at a make-or-break moment in the international nuclear negotiations.
The exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran, which has uncovered a number of clandestine sites in Iran over a dozen years of nuclear sleuthing, on Tuesday claimed to expose a secret facility in a Tehran suburb where it says nuclear research and uranium enrichment are taking place in violation of international agreements.
The revelation comes as both the United States and Iran signal that they are making progress in talks aimed at reaching an international accord on Iran’s nuclear program by a March 31 deadline. And the exposure of another purported secret Iranian nuclear site joins other external factors – for example, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech to Congress next week on the dangers of the deal – that are jostling the impending diplomatic dash in pursuit of an accord.
While some nuclear proliferation experts say they are not surprised by the rising outside challenges at a decisive moment in the talks, they also say those should not be viewed as enough to derail the diplomatic effort. If anything, they say, new factors like the claims of secret facilities only underscore the need to reach a deal that will limit Iran and allow for inspections of all the country’s facilities.
“Many people are looking for ways to blow up these negotiations; some are legitimate concerns and some are less valid,” says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association in Washington. “This report should be explored, but it should not be a reason to stop short of a deal that would address this problem [of undeclared sites] for a long time to come.”
The report also comes a week after the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said Iran continued to stonewall on providing information on past nuclear weaponization activity.
“What we know is that [uranium] enrichment has been going on here, as has research and development, and it’s continuing as we speak,” says Alireza Jafarzadeh, deputy director of the National Council (NCRI) Washington office. “It’s the task of the United States and the [international community] to force an inspection” of the site.
Mr. Jafarzadeh, who was behind the bombshell revelation of Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment site and the Arak plutonium facility in 2002, says the group shared its information with US officials in the White House and at the State Department before holding a press conference Tuesday.
The dossier of information contains satellite photos of a 62-acre site in a northern Tehran suburb with extensive military facilities and residential buildings. Photos of heavily reinforced doorways in a series of underground work sites and other information about the site were provided by informants inside the regime and, in particular, in key ministries responsible for Iran’s nuclear program, the group says.
However, the information does not offer proof of nuclear activities at the site. The informants were unable to provide information about the level of the uranium enrichment they assert is taking place at the site, Jafarzadeh says, nor could they affirm the “extent” of the enrichment or the number of on-site centrifuges, the fast-spinning machines that can be used to deliver weapons-grade uranium.
According to Jafarzadeh, the information was also shared with some key members of Congress – some of whom have been at loggerheads with President Obama over his administration’s diplomatic effort with Tehran.
At a congressional hearing Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry said the administration has a guiding policy in the international nuclear talks – that “Iran will not get a nuclear weapon” – and he said opposition to a deal is coming from parties that have no idea what an accord would include or what it would require of Iran.
But details have begun to leak out of an agreement that would strictly limit – and open up to thorough inspection – Iran’s nuclear activities for the coming decade. After what would essentially be a period of verified good behavior, restrictions would gradually be lifted on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.
Last week Mr. Netanyahu, who is scheduled to address Congress March 3 over objections from the White House, debunked the “opposition out of ignorance” argument by saying Israel has excellent sources within the international talks. He said his opposition to the deal taking shape is based not on conjecture but on knowledge that envisioned provisions would put not just Israel but the US and the world at risk.
At the NCRI press conference, the group’s US representative, Soona Samsami, said the latest revelations are further evidence that the international nuclear talks are “misguided” because the Iranian regime is not a reliable negotiating partner.
Some international security experts who favor a deal with Iran say the timing of the NCRI’s latest revelations is suspect. For its part, the group says it was only now that the information could be fully vetted.
Others caution that the group’s claims have not always panned out in the past.
“They’ve been right and they’ve been wrong,” says the Arms Control Association’s Mr. Kimball.
More critically in his view, he says, a good deal would allow for the kind of unconditional access to sites of interest, like the one revealed in today’s report, that does not exist under the prevailing international agreements with Iran.
“If anything, I’d say if you’re really interested in getting into sites like this you would want a comprehensive agreement that gives the IAEA unfettered access,” Kimball says. “If this kind of report is aimed at derailing the talks, I’d say it’s cutting off your nose to spite your face.”