Since Nov. 12, Iran has been struck by three different explosions at facilities tied to its missile and nuclear capabilities. This week a great deal of international attention was drawn to the explosion that reportedly occurred at Iran’s nuclear facility near Isfahan on Nov. 28. Immediately afterward there were conflicting newspaper reports over whether the nuclear facility had actually been damaged. The London Times indicated that the Isfahan nuclear facility had indeed been struck. Just this week, however, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) published satellite photographs of the Isfahan facility that were taken in late August 2011, comparing them to photographs that were taken in early December. The debate over the importance of what happened in Isfahan is still likely to continue despite this photographic evidence: While the Isfahan nuclear facility itself appears not to have been damaged, the Iranians bulldozed a number of buildings that were about 400 meters away from its outer fence. Why was what happened at Isfahan so important?
In 2002, when the Iranian opposition first disclosed the country’s secret nuclear program, there were three main facilities that it unveiled. The most well-known of these today was Iran’s center for uranium enrichment at Natanz. There was also a heavy water reactor at another location by the name of Arak. The used fuel rods from this reactor could be used for the production of plutonium. Finally, there was a third nuclear plant outside of Isfahan, for uranium conversion. Iran, which had its own uranium mines, wanted to take uranium ore and produce an intermediate product called “yellowcake.” At the Isfahan facility, the Iranians would take their “yellowcake” and convert it into a uranium gas that would eventually be fed into the centrifuges at Natanz. Any damage to the Isfahan plant would cut off the main fuel the Iranians used for making enriched uranium.
Isfahan had also been one of the great achievements of Iran’s nuclear diplomacy during the last decade. Once the Iranian nuclear program had been revealed, the EU countries, led by Britain, France and Germany, took the lead and opened negotiations with Iran to freeze its nuclear program. The head Iranian negotiator, Hasan Rowhani, would boast that when these talks began in 2003, Iran had no uranium conversion facility in Isfahan. He later explained that the negotiations with the Europeans provided Iran with precious time “to complete the work on Isfahan,” which was already running two years later in 2005. The Iranians were also able to delay any action by the U.N. Security Council, which should have acted against them in 2002, but did not adopt a single resolution on Iran until 2006. As an Iranian deputy foreign minister explained at the time, diplomacy had been used “to lessen pressure on Iran for its nuclear program.”
What is clear from the satellite photographs that were published this week was that the Isfahan facility was not destroyed. The analysts at ISIS in Washington believe that besides the buildings that appeared to have been eliminated by the Iranians outside the fence of the Isfahan facility, there was also an old salt mine used for storage which might have been affected. Iran has a history of leveling nuclear facilities by itself, when it thought it was about to get caught by the West. In 2003, when the IAEA inspectors requested access to the Lavizan Research Center, where Iran’s weaponization work was done, the Iranian regime not only demolished six buildings that were used for this work, but they even removed several meters of top soil from the site, in case the IAEA was planning to take soil samples in order to investigate whether radioactive materials had been used in the area. Perhaps Iran was concerned today that the explosions near the Isfahan plant had exposed prohibited activities in which the Iranians were engaging, so they sent in bulldozers to level the area.
The reports on the mysterious explosions in Iran fit into another debate that is currently being waged in Washington. The Washington Post published a story on Dec. 8 quoting American officials who said that the Obama administration had decided on a new strategy in Iran, based on a wider use of “covert efforts” targeting the Iranian nuclear program. The Iranians had just taken possession of an American unmanned drone which they said was in their airspace. The story about the covert efforts in Iran came out just as the administration was struggling with Congressional leaders over their legislation, which had unanimous approval in the U.S. Senate, to take measures against foreign banks doing business with Iran’s Central Bank. Congress wants to force foreign banks to choose whether they do business with Iran or with the U.S. By making it difficult to do business with Iran’s Central Bank, members of Congress are hoping that it will become more difficult for countries to buy Iranian oil, thereby cutting into Iran’s main source of income.
Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has tried to argue in a letter to senators that the result of what they are doing will be to increase the price of oil. The administration wants to delay the implementation of penalties for those doing business with Iran by six months. If crippling sanctions are not adopted what is the administration suggesting to do about Iran? By leaking a story about a new strategy of using secret operations there may be an effort underway to answer that question. In the meantime it does not appear that the Iranian nuclear program has been stopped. Each new IAEA report documents a steady growth in the amount of enriched uranium the Iranians have produced. Back in 2003, Iran brilliantly manipulated the West in order gain the time it needed to build the Isfahan nuclear facility. Now, by debating with itself, the West may be providing Iran with the precious time it needs to further advance toward its goal of producing nuclear weapons.