The Washington Post, September 9, 2010
Alireza Jafarzadeh, Foreign Affairs Analyst and Iran Expert
By Greg Miller
An Iranian dissident group said on Thursday that it has identified a previously undisclosed nuclear facility under construction northwest of Tehran, claiming to have evidence that shows the Islamic nation is deceiving inspectors and moving forward in its pursuit of a bomb.
Details about the facility were scant, and experts said the allegation that construction at the site is nuclear-related could not be confirmed.
The information was presented by the People’s Mujaheddin Organization of Iran, a group that has been on the mark in the past in exposing Iranian nuclear activities, including the identification in 2002 of a large centrifuge installation at Natanz.
Satellite image of site alleged to be a previously undisclosed nuclear facility in Iran. (Courtesy DigitalGlobe and Globalsecurity.org).
But U.S. officials have greeted some of the organization’s other claims with skepticism, and note that it has for years been on a State Department list of designated terrorist organizations.
“This facility has been under construction for years, and we’ve known about it for years. While there’s still some ambiguity about its ultimate purpose – not unusual for something that’s still taking shape – there’s no reason at this point to think it’s nuclear,” a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The Iranians put military stuff in tunnels, too. People should be cautious about reaching conclusions here.”
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad vowed late last year that Tehran would build 10 new sites to enrich uranium. No evidence has surfaced yet to indicated that any of those facilities have been built.
The People’s Mujaheddin Organization said the new site is located just north of a major highway connecting Tehran with the Iranian city of Qazvin. Satellite images presented by the organization showed significant excavation amid otherwise mountainous and barren terrain.
The group said that Iran has been engaged in major excavation work at the site for at least five years, building a network of underground tunnels designed to hold centrifuges that could be used to enrich uranium to weapons-grade purification levels.
A spokeswoman for the Iranian group, Soona Samsami, said the new compound was 85 percent complete and could prove to be “far more important than the Qom site,” a facility that Iran worked on in secret for years before it was exposed by the Obama administration in 2009.
The dissident group’s information came from an “internal network of sources” inside the country, Samsami said, adding that details had been shared with U.S. government agencies, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, which carries out United Nations-mandated inspections of Iran’s nuclear sites.
The facility is referred to within Iran as site “3-1-1,” and has been portrayed internally as an annex to an existing military garrison nearby, an explanation that the group said is inconsistent with the scale of the tunneling work underway.
Noting that Iran had told the IAEA last year that there were no other nuclear facilities under construction, another group spokesman, Alireza Jafarzadeh, said, “Iranian officials were lying through their teeth.”
Still, experts expressed skepticism about the new allegations.
“We saw nothing in the images that suggests a centrifuge plant,” said David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “There are many underground facilities in Iran.”
The Mujaheddin group aims to overthrow of the government in Tehran, and has lobbied to have the State Department terrorist label removed.
Iran insists that its nuclear program is strictly for peaceful purposes, including energy and medical research. An IAEA report released this week said that Iran has notified the agency that it is planning to build new nuclear facilities, but has rebuffed agency requests for details.