Iran nuclear fuel facility is moved
Underground site to expand quantity of production
WASHINGTON - Iran is moving its most sensitive nuclear-fuel production to a heavily defended underground military facility outside the holy city of Qum, where it is less vulnerable to attack from the air, and, the Iranians hope, the kind of cyberattack that crippled its nuclear program, according to intelligence officials.
The head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Fereidoun Abbasi, spoke about the transfer in general terms Monday to an official Iranian news service. He boasted that his country would produce the fuel in much larger quantities than it needs for a small research reactor in Tehran that produces medical isotopes.
The fact that Iran is declaring that its production will exceed its needs has reinforced the suspicions of many US and European intelligence officials that Iran plans to use the fuel to build weapons or to train Iranian scientists in how to produce bomb-grade fuel.
Describing the new facilities in an interview with the news service, the Islamic Republic News Agency, Abbasi, who narrowly survived an assassination attempt last year, said that a 2009 proposal for the West to supply Iran with new fuel for the small research reactor, in return for an end to Iranian production of the fuel, is dead.
“We will no longer negotiate a fuel swap and a halt to our production of fuel,’’ he said. “The United States is not a safe country with which we can negotiate a fuel swap or any other issue.’’
At the White House, Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said that the Iranian plan “to install and operate centrifuges at Qum,’’ in a facility whose existence President Obama and European leaders made public two years ago, “is a violation of their United Nations Security obligations and another provocative act.’’
Vietor noted that Iran has said that international inspectors “will continue to have access to these centrifuges as part of its inspection activities in Iran,’’ which would make it likely that any diversion of the fuel for weapons use could be detected.
So far, Iran has allowed periodic visits by inspectors but refused to provide information they demanded about the facility or to allow interviews of its personnel. A report updating the agency’s findings in Iran was expected in the next few days.
In interviews, both current and former US government officials provided new details of internal debates in recent years over how to deal with the Iranian nuclear program.
Those discussions weighed the risks of a traditional covert attack on Iran’s facilities versus a cyberattack. They laid the groundwork for what in 2009 and 2010 became the most successful effort thus far to slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions - the computer worm known as Stuxnet, which disabled about a fifth of the country’s working centrifuges and temporarily halted Iran’s planned expansion of its capabilities.
The officials involved in the discussions about Iran said that President George W. Bush’s administration asked the Central Intelligence Agency in the summer of 2008 to assess the feasibility of covert action to blow up or disable crucial elements of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
But when the agency delivered the plans, they were quickly rejected, the officials said, for fear that any kind of obvious attack on the facilities could touch off another conflict in the Middle East just as a new US president was assuming office. The options were developed in part to assess whether a physical attack on the facilities would be significantly more effective than more subtle - and deniable - sabotage of the Iranian facilities, including cyberattacks.