Jackie Sanders [chief U.S. delegate to the International Atomic Energy Agency board of governors] was losing patience. It was Thanksgiving weekend and they were back in Vienna and they might as well never have left. The hard deadline they thought they had worked into the last IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency] Board resolution on Iran had fallen. Counselor? she said for the umpteenth time, turning to her colleague and compliance lawyer, Christopher Ford. How many times could you “note” Iran’s bad behavior, its cheat-and-retreat with IAEA inspectors, and still fail to acknowledge that the Islamic Republic was in violation of the Nonproliferation Treaty? Apparently, six times, he said. This would be the sixth resolution the IAEA Board of Governors had passed since Mohammed El Baradei began reporting on Iran’s previously undisclosed uranium enrichment and plutonium programs in March 2003. And Iran continued to flaunt its commitment, including its pledge to the European Union 3 not to enrich uranium or produce UF6 [Uranium Hexafluoride] feedstock. How about “note with concern?” he ventured.
Mr. Ford, British Ambassador Peter Jenkins said testily, we’ve already been down that road and you know we are not going to play your games. We have reached an agreement with the Iranian government, and we intend to keep it. The Iranians are complying, and so shall we.
Baradei had stunned the Board — including the Europeans — when he announced in passing on opening day that the Iranians had just informed the agency that their agreement to “suspend” enrichment would not apply to a small cascade they wanted to operate for R&D purposes. Even the Europeans understood the significance of that exception. The Iranians reportedly believed the high-pitched whine from the permitted cascade would mask the noise from a clandestine enrichment cascade operating nearby.
Mr. Ford, you have to trust us, said Friedrich Groning, the German representative. You can’t possibly know all that we discussed with the Iranians or the assurances they gave us, because you weren’t there. We are convinced the Iranians will uphold their side of the bargain. You can take my word on that.
Sanders sat without batting an eyelash as Herr Groning lectured her legal adviser, but inwardly she was screaming. Take your word? You’ve got to be kidding! We’re supposed to take assurances from a German diplomat whose country is Iran’s number-one trading partner and just wants to make this whole thing go away? While they were meeting in Vienna, the German news magazine Der Spiegel issued a brief report based on information from an “unnamed intelligence agency” that Iran had dug a secret tunnel near the Isfahan hex plant to prepare raw uranium for enrichment, despite Iran’s pledge to the Europeans to cease such activities.
Ayatollah Khamenei ordered the construction of the underground facility in October, Der Spiegel reported, and instructed the special military unit assigned to do the tunneling to take every precaution to avoid detection by spy satellites. Once the site was completed, the Iranians planned to make additional UF6 for a clandestine centrifuge enrichment cascade, the magazine asserted. Asked to comment on the Der Spiegel report, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said, “Lots of tunnels are being built across the country nowadays by the Ministry of Roads and Transportation.” The idea that a tunnel of “such enormity” could be built without detection was absurd, he told the regime’s news agency on November 28.
Just three days earlier, Iran’s Mehr news agency quoted a provincial official who announced that Iran had established a factory near Qom to manufacture state-of-the-art tunnel-boring machines. The new machines would be capable of boring holes up to 4.5 meters in diameter. R&D on the machines was being done in Isfahan, he added. Burrowing underground was a pastime Iran shared with its longtime nuclear and missile partner, North Korea, which had buried hundreds of missile bases, production plants, and clandestine nuclear facilities.
In January 2005, Iranian officials admitted that they had built secret tunnels in Isfahan to protect UF6 production equipment from air attack. The machines they used for the task were not Iranian-made, however, but imported from Germany. And Isfahan was not the only secret underground facility they had made.
As Sanders listened to the IAEA director general, Baradei present his case during the closing session of the Board of Governors meeting on Nov. 29, 2004, it was clear the United States had reached the end of the road. For the past eighteen months the agency had worked together with the Iranians to bring their previously undeclared nuclear programs under IAEA control, Baradei said. There were a few minor outstanding issues. Baradei’s message was clear: Iran had sinned. Iran had confessed. And now, Iran should be forgiven.
If that’s the case, Sanders wondered out loud, what’s the point of the Nonproliferation Treaty or the IAEA? The world might now conclude that proliferation was a “no lose” proposition. If no one catches you, you get the Bomb. And if you’re caught, all you have to do is admit whatever has been discovered, and all will be forgiven—until the next time.
Kenneth R. Timmerman is the author of “Countdown to Crisis: The Coming Nuclear Showdown with Iran,” from which this is excerpted.