The Wall Street Journal, September 9, 2010
Alireza Jafarzadeh, Foreign Affairs Analyst and Iran Expert
By JAY SOLOMON
WASHINGTON—Iran is developing an underground military installation in the mountains west of Tehran, according to U.S. officials and Iranian dissidents, but the facility’s exact purpose is in dispute.
An Iranian opposition group, the Mujahedin-e-Khalq, on Thursday told a Washington news conference that the site, which it called Javad-nia 2, is a nearly completed uranium-enrichment facility aimed at fast-tracking Iran’s nuclear program.
UPI/Roger L. Wollenberg /Landov
Soona Samsami points to Qom, a known nuclear site. Dissidents claim to have found a new nuclear facility.
A U.S. official disputed the MEK’s finding that the construction site in western Iran is nuclear, and urged caution.
“This facility has been under construction for years, and we’ve known about it for years,” said the U.S. official. “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. The Iranians put military stuff in tunnels, too.”
The MEK said the facility is 85% complete and adjoined to a major Iranian military garrison. The dissidents said they didn’t believe that cascades of centrifuges, which are used to produce nuclear fuel, have been introduced to the mountainous site. But they said that three halls to house the centrifuges have been built and that the Iranian government has spent roughly $100 million developing the facility.
“This type of work has gone undetected and is expanding,” said Soona Samsami, an MEK representative.
The MEK has played a significant role in recent years exposing some of Iran’s covert nuclear activities. In 2002, it disclosed the existence of Iran’s nuclear installations in the cities of Natanz and Isfahan. Subsequent investigations conducted by the United Nation’s nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, verified the MEK’s claims and set off the international community’s current standoff with Tehran over the nuclear program.
Independent nuclear experts said the MEK’s information was plausible given Tehran’s public claims that it is preparing to build 10 new enrichment plants at underground sites in the coming years. Last year, Iran acknowledged to the IAEA that it had been building a covert uranium-enrichment facility outside the Iranian holy city of Qom.
Still, the experts said the satellite imagery provided by the MEK on Thursday was inadequate for verifying the presence of a new enrichment site. They noted that Iran is developing underground facilities at a number of locations inside Iran, many of which are believed to have military, but not nuclear, purposes.
“It’s conceivable this is a nuclear site, as Tehran has announced it would build new enrichment facilities underground,” said Paul Brannan of Washington’s Institute for Science and International Security, which is focused on combating nuclear proliferation. “But without knowing what’s exactly inside those tunnels, it’s impossible to verify.”
A spokesman for Iran’s mission at the U.N. didn’t respond to messages seeking comment.
The U.S. State Department has designated the MEK a terrorist organization for assassinating U.S. officials inside Iran during the 1970s.
The organization also collaborated with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein to launch military strikes against Iran’s theocratic government. The MEK is currently contesting the U.S. government’s terrorist designation in a Washington district court and says it gave up its armed struggle in 2001.
U.S. officials acknowledge that the MEK has provided useful information in the past. But they also say some of its information has been inaccurate or exaggerated. Iran insists its nuclear program is purely for civilian purposes.
The IAEA released a quarterly report this week on the status of Iran’s nuclear program and criticized Tehran for limiting the access of the Agency’s inspectors. The report stated that Iran has failed to answer questions concerning its alleged efforts to develop nuclear warheads and triggering devices. And the report said Iran continues to expand its production of nuclear fuel, though not as quickly as some Western intelligence agencies had projected.
Mr. Brannan and other nuclear experts say the IAEA should be pressing Tehran to allow access to the underground facilities currently being developed. They said that the facility cited by the MEK on Thursday might not be nuclear, but others could be.
—Siobhan Gorman contributed to this article.
Write to Jay Solomon at firstname.lastname@example.org