Fascinating story behind yesterday morning’s announcement by Barack Obama, Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy that Iran has been constructing a second, secret nuclear facility near the holy city of Qom. Apparently the United States has known about this for years. The timeline, as best I can make it out, runs something like this. Iran began building this second nuclear enrichment facility in 2005. At least one source says that we have known about it “for years,” though I think there is reason to doubt that, so I’m withholding judgment on that point. In any case the Obama administration has known about it for some time, but has declined to make that information public. They did not intend to make this information public, either.
Yesterday’s announcement would not have happened if it were not for a leak from the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency, which monitors nuclear non-proliferation for the UN). Iran sent the IAEA a letter earlier this week which referenced the construction of a second facility it had not previously disclosed. It was depicted as a sort of pilot program, and of course it was supposed to be for peaceful purposes. The IAEA did not make that information public (and defends itself by saying that communications such as these are confidential). Yet someone leaked the information, and the Obama administration had to get out in front of the issue. National security folks learned of it Tuesday night, and discussed it with Obama the next morning. They were “angered,” the New York Times says (though they hardly could have been surprised), that the second facility was depicted as a minor pilot program.
The White House essentially decided to outflank the Iranians, to present to their allies and the public what they believed was powerful evidence that there was more to the Iranian site than just some pilot program. They saw it as a chance to use this evidence to persuade other countries to support the case for stronger sanctions by showing that the Iranians were still working on a secret nuclear plan.
This requires translation, since the Times is clearly conveying the spin it was given: the administration was being outflanked by Iran, which was disclosing the information before the White House could use it or reveal it, and so the White House tried to get back out in front. They were forced into doing what they had chosen not to do for many months: revealing what they knew publicly to build leverage against Iran. So the administration presented the evidence that it possessed of the second facility to the IAEA in Vienna. They brought the New York Times (who else?) up to speed, but asked the Times not to run their story until the morning of Obama’s announcement. Yet the AP got wind of the story, and the embargo was lifted. In any case, the administration also hastily pulled together a united front for their announcement. The Europeans wanted the Obama administration to bring forth the information and confront Iran in the Security Council meeting on Thursday. The White House refused, fearing it would dilute the non-proliferation plans it had for the council meeting. So they waited until Friday morning, and gave out details to the press as the announcement was being made.
So there are a number of questions here. Why didn’t the administration make this information public earlier? Why did Iran send the letter to the IAEA? Who leaked the letter? What do the Russians and Chinese have to say about all this? And what are we going to do about it now?
I imagine that the Obama administration was happy to have Iran protest its innocence and its compliance with international norms, so that, in the midst of their negotiations beginning soon, they could pressure the Iranians with the threat of making the information public. Or, if it should not prove necessary to show what we knew, we could use our information (and the sources from which it came) to determine, after an agreement were entered into, whether the Iranians were actually dismantling their program. Yet conservatives, with some justification, are saying: this information should have been presented to the IAEA long ago, and should have been revealed to the world in order to show that Iran presented a bigger threat, and was even more in violation of international law, than everyone thought. This also raises questions regarding our 2007 intelligence assessment–much ballyhooed by a press that was eager to head off any strong action by the Bush administration against Iran — that Iran had ceased its nuclear program in 2003.
As Obama said in his announcement, the facility is not consistent with a peaceful, nuclear energy program; so if there is anyone out there who believes that Iranians really are just interested in nuclear energy and radiation medicine, they should know that the Obama administration, which loathes the idea of a conflict with Iran, disagrees. So, exactly when did we learn about this second facility? If it was during the Bush administration (and thus passed on from the Bush administration to the Obama administration), why did the Bush administration not do more about it? Did we know about the second facility when the intelligence assessment was released in 2007? If not, why have we not publicly retracted that report?
But it gets still more interesting when we consider why Iran sent the letter, and who might have leaked it. It’s possible that Iran got wind of Obama’s intention to use this threatened disclosure as leverage in negotiations — and decided to disclose the facility preemptively. This would be a way of sticking a finger in our eye; if you think threatening to expose that information will bother me, well, I’ll show you; I’ll disclose it myself. I know of no other reason why Iran, having kept this facility secret for four years, would suddenly send a letter about it to the IAEA. And thus it’s possible that Iran itself leaked the letter when the IAEA did not. The IAEA clearly could have made the information public, since Iran had been deceiving the IAEA for four years; but that may be why the IAEA was not eager for word to get out. There is a particular reporter who may have been involved in the leak; but of course the reporter is not a part of the IAEA, so he too would have had to learn about it. Another possibility is that someone within the IAEA, someone who was bitter against Iran or wanted to show its deceptions, leaked the letter.
So what should we do? Obviously we don’t want war, with all the consequences that would bring. We would rather not attack. Crippling sanctions, interdiction of shipping, freezing of assets — these are our best hopes, short of a strike. We can’t let iran drag out the diplomacy process until they already have a warhead. Sure, you can throw a match into a powder-keg and hope it won’t explode — but is that really wise?
With all of this information, the Obama administration continues to insist that diplomacy will work. This was one of the central claims with which Obama was elected. And perhaps Iran has intended all along, when the international community was most concerned, to cash in its chips and take everything that’s offered on the table. But let’s get the diplomacy started right away, and give it two weeks. They’ve lied and deceived for years. Enough. And if they spurn our offer, then we impose severe sanctions, with or without Russia and China’s agreement. And if Russia and China try to continue trade, we force them to stop.
This is going to be a big test for Obama. If he passes this test, he will soar in my estimation.
UPDATE: More information on how and when we learned of the Qom facility. I suspected the Bush administration could not have known the full story with Qom, since they would have wanted to make the information public to bolster their case against Iran. I think I was right:
In fact, the makings of the administration’s strategy was hatched months before, when the White House first came to believe that the complex, built into a mountain on property near Qum controlled by Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, might be a part of the nuclear program. Over time, the file that intelligence officials accumulated on the facility developed as a cudgel, a way to win over wary allies and test if the Iranians were being truthful in their disclosures.
Senior intelligence officials said Friday that several years ago American intelligence agencies under the administration of George W. Bush discovered the suspicious site. The site was one of Iran’s most closely guarded secrets, the officials said, known only by senior members of Iran’s nuclear establishment. The officials said that housing the complex on the base gave it an extra layer of security.
Mr. Obama was first told about the existence of the covert site during his transition period in late 2008, White House officials said, after he had been elected but before he was inaugurated. But it was not until earlier this year that American spy agencies detected the movement of sensitive equipment into the facility — a sign, they believed, that whatever work was involved was nearing its final stages.
The Times article also claims that administration folks were “angry” but also “satisfied” with the Iranian letter to the IAEA, because it gave them leverage. But it didn’t give them leverage. Iran’s admission of having a small, pilot, peaceful program at another base did not give them any leverage they did not already have. So I regard this as spin.
UPDATE 2: Iran now says they will let the IAEA inspect the facility, that it had never processed uranium, and that the world should be congratulating them for their transparency in half-revealing a facility they had hidden from the world for years. Really.