Tuesday, January 5, 2010
NYTIMES: Iran's nuclear shell game.
Last September, when Iran’s uranium enrichment plant buried inside a mountain near the holy city of Qum was revealed, the episode cast light on a wider pattern: Over the past decade, Iran has quietly hidden an increasingly large part of its atomic complex in networks of tunnels and bunkers across the country.
In doing so, American government and private experts say, Iran has achieved a double purpose. Not only has it shielded its infrastructure from military attack in warrens of dense rock, but it has further obscured the scale and nature of its notoriously opaque nuclear effort. The discovery of the Qum plant only heightened fears about other undeclared sites.
Now, with the passing of President Obama’s year-end deadline for diplomatic progress, that cloak of invisibility has emerged as something of a stealth weapon, complicating the West’s military and geopolitical calculus.
The Obama administration says it is hoping to take advantage of domestic political unrest and disarray in Iran’s nuclear program to press for a regimen of strong and immediate new sanctions. But a crucial factor behind that push for nonmilitary solutions, some analysts say, is Iran’s tunneling — what Tehran calls its strategy of “passive defense.”
Indeed, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates has repeatedly discounted the possibility of a military strike, saying that it would only slow Iran’s nuclear ambitions by one to three years while driving the program further underground.
Some analysts say that Israel, which has taken the hardest line on Iran, may be especially hampered, given its less formidable military and intelligence abilities.
“It complicates your targeting,” said Richard L. Russell, a former Central Intelligence Agency analyst now at the National Defense University. “We’re used to facilities being above ground. Underground, it becomes literally a black hole. You can’t be sure what’s taking place.”
Even the Israelis concede that solid rock can render bombs useless. Late last month, the Israeli defense minister,Ehud Barak, told Parliament that the Qum plant was “located in bunkers that cannot be destroyed through a conventional attack.”
Heavily mountainous Iran has a long history of tunneling toward civilian as well as military ends, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has played a recurring role — first as a transportation engineer and founder of the Iranian Tunneling Association and now as the nation’s president.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of big tunnels in Iran, according to American government and private experts, and the lines separating their uses can be fuzzy. Companies owned by the Islamic Revolutionary GuardsCorps of Iran, for example, build civilian as well as military tunnels.
No one in the West knows how much, or exactly what part, of Iran’s nuclear program lies hidden. Still, evidence of the downward atomic push is clear to the inquisitive.
Google Earth, for instance, shows that the original hub of the nuclear complex at Isfahan consists of scores of easily observed — and easy to attack — buildings. But government analysts say that in recent years Iran has honeycombed the nearby mountains with tunnels. Satellite photos show six entrances.
Iranian officials say years of veiled bombing threats prompted their country to exercise its “sovereign right” to protect its nuclear facilities by hiding them underground. That was their argument when they announced plans in November to build 10 uranium enrichment plants. Despite the improbability and bluster of the claim, Iran’s tunneling history gave it a measure of credibility.
They will be scattered in the mountains,” the chief of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Ali Akbar Salehi, told Iran’s Press TV. “We will be using the passive defense so that we don’t need to have active defense, which is very expensive.”
Mr. Gates, along with other Western officials, has dismissed that line of argument as cover for a covert arms program.
“If they wanted it for peaceful purposes,” he said of the Qum plant on CNN, “there’s no reason to put it so deep underground, no reason to be deceptive about it, keep it a secret for a protracted period of time.”
Iran denies that its nuclear efforts are for military purposes and insists that it wants to unlock the atom strictly for peaceful aims, like making electricity. It says it wants to build many enrichment plants to fuel up to 20 nuclear power plants, a plan many economists question because Iran ranks second globally in oil and natural gas reserves.
Ploy or not, any expansion seems unlikely to zoom ahead. After a decade of construction, Iran’s main enrichment plant, at Natanz, operates at a tiny fraction of its capacity. The Qum plant is only half built. Nuclear experts say the new plants, if attempted, may not materialize for years or decades. Even so, they note that tunnels would be the easiest part of the plan and may get dug relatively soon.
READ THE REST OF THE STORY AT NYT
Posted by Steve Douglass at 8:20 PM