Hans Blix said a lot of things while Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency for 16 years, and one of them was this:

“We cannot inspect every nook and cranny in a large country.”

Before running the IAEA, Blix was a politician, a career civil servant, and a foreign minister, and in public sometimes he could be, well, more than a little cagey. On occasion Blix fiercely defended his agency’s prerogatives and reputation, but there were also moments when he felt that he shouldn’t commit the IAEA to take avoidable risks or promise to do things that couldn’t be delivered. In recent years, with the IAEA prominently extending its reach into Iran, and with significant changes in the making concerning how the IAEA implements safeguards, Blix’s views about the IAEA’s role are still informed by concern about the agency’s risk and reputation.

Mark Hibbs
Hibbs is a Germany-based nonresident senior fellow in Carnegie’s Nuclear Policy Program. His areas of expertise are nuclear verification and safeguards, multilateral nuclear trade policy, international nuclear cooperation, and nonproliferation arrangements.
More >

I was in the room in 1992 when Blix made the above remark, and I recall that my initial reaction was that it allowed him to dodge probing questions about the IAEA’s responsibility for making sure that a state’s nuclear activities were all accounted for, as the first Gulf War a year before had revealed that the IAEA missed a billion-dollar nuclear weapons program in Iraq.

But my first impression of  his remark, informed by Blix’ cleverness, was shortsighted. As is also the case today, back in 1992 the IAEA needed to think about its risk and reputation. Many people then expected Blix to chase down every Iraqi machine tool, mop up every speck of South Africa’s enriched uranium, and get cracking on safeguarding heretofore undeclared nuclear activities in Argentina and Brazil–all at a time when Blix’ paymasters were closing in on and reducing the IAEA’s budget. Blix could not overcommit himself and his agency–and he therefore chose his words wisely.

Enter the PMOI

I can’t remember when I last recalled Blix’ 21-year-old response to a question about the IAEA’s capability to penetrate into hidden domaines of a country’s nuclear program, but shortly after I saw this announcement by the People’s Mojaheddin Organization of Iran early this morning, it resurfaced. The PMOI report was backed up by documentation asserting that Iran is building a secret nuclear installation at a place called Damavand, north of Tehran.

What to make of that claim? Reuters asked me this morning. I told them the PMOI should not be simply brushed off for two reasons: 1.) because the organization has a mixed track record which includes revealing some correct information, and 2.) because in light of Iran’s own failure to declare its activities, “it has been widely assumed that there is likely some Iranian nuclear infrastructure which is secret, undeclared, and which may be underground.”  Reuters published that.

But I also told Reuters this, which didn’t get into print and which in my view was more germane to the questions raised by PMOI’s material:

Given that Iran has just elected a new president from whom we anticipate initiatives, it’s hard to believe that Iran would provoke the powers by equipping a new underground site with centrifuges. It’s more likely that intelligence agencies have known about this site for some time and that information is being leaked now to smoke out that site in advance.

Why did I draw that preliminary conclusion?

In 2010, Iran announced it would build ten enrichment plants. At the time this claim was widely dismissed by many observers as hyperbole, given the views of some people, including Olli Heinonen, that Iran was likely runing low on embargoed materials it needed to build more centrifuges.  The IAEA  requested that Iran provide design information for any additional enrichment plants it intended to build. So far, Iran has not provided the IAEA any information indicating that it plans to build more enrichment facilities than the ones the IAEA knows about.

So is Iran building or intending to build a new underground enrichment plant now, at the site that PMOI is fingering? I have no facts, and no knowledge. I doubt it. But if so, or if such a facility was ever planned, it’s probably too late.

There’s also Iran’s presidential election and Hassan Rouhani’s victory to consider. With Iran poised to reap the benefits in the form of further delays in sanctions or other negative actions, news that Iran had a third clandestine centrifuge plant would be fatal to efforts by Iran to demonstrate that its failure to make known the Fordo plant before September 2009 was a one-off mistake (actually, a two-off mistake, since back in 2002 Iran’ had likewise failed to declare its Natanz plant). Were U.S.-Iran diplomacy to take off after Rouhani’s election, revelation that Iran was preparing a new underground nuclear site would be poison.

The PMOI has some new wrinkes–including the allegation that Mohsen Fakhrizideh is in charge of a company constructing the facility on behalf of Iran’s Defense Ministry–but the PMOI does not in fact identify any specific nuclear purpose for the site which it claims hosts a “secret nuclear facility.”

More likely is the prospect that PMOI may be obtaining information from people connected to foreign intelligence agencies who are busy trying to uncover Iranian nuclear-related facility construction.  Their hunt for secret sites in Iran got revved up long before Iran told us of its 10-enrichment plant ambitions. Even before that I was told that Western governments had located about a dozen potential sites where a centrifuge plant in the future might be bunkered or erected underground. Intelligence agencies and their governments could therefore well have an interest in signaling to Iran now that they know about sites which Iran has developed and which it could dedicate to future uranium enrichment–whether clandestine or declared.

For the powers negotiating with Iran, were Iran to declare to the IAEA that it intended to build a third enrichment plant, that would make more difficult a future deal intending to limit Iran’s future uranium activity to a single installation in Iran. Iran’s adversaries would therefore want to nip any third plant in the bud. The powers also don’t want to see Iran reprocessing spent fuel from its heavy water reactor in Arak. Removing any undeclared infrastructure which may host such future activities–as Israel did in destroying the installation at Al-Kibar in Syria in 2007– was not an option. Lifting the veil would have been an option.

Back to Blix

During interactions with the IAEA after early 2009, Iran changed its narrative about the intended purpose of the Fordo facility. That made the IAEA suspicious that Iran had intended the facility to be undeclared before it was spooked by foreign intelligence agencies. The IAEA reported to its Board of Governors in November 2010:

Iran’s failure to inform the Agency, in accordance with the provisions of the revised Code 3.1, of the decision to construct, or to authorize construction of, a new facility as soon as such a decision is taken, and to submit information as the design is developed, is inconsistent with its obligations under the Subsidiary Arrangements to its Safeguards Agreement. Moreover, Iran’s delay in submitting such information to the Agency does not contribute to the building of confidence. While the Agency has confirmed that the plant corresponds to the design information provided by Iran, Iran’s explanation about the purpose of the facility and the chronology of its design and construction requires further clarification.

Could the IAEA inject itself into Iran to find out whether Fordo, or any other project, was intended to be declared or not? In 2009, before he vacated the Director-Generalship of the IAEA to Yukiya Amano, Mohamed ElBaradei had this to say:

It isn’t realistic for an international organization to have an intelligence branch…. Having our own spies going around the world is contrary to our nature. We do our work above ground; we don’t work underground. So I continue to preach transparency.

That brings us full circle back to what ElBaradei’s predecessor said 17 years before. The IAEA is only as robust and capable as its member states permit. In 1992, the IAEA had no resources to commit itself to look under every rock for signs of clandestine nuclear activity. Today, with or without the State-Level Approach for safeguards, the IAEA is in the same situation. Then as now, the IAEA can’t cover all the territory. “We cannot inspect every nook and cranny in a large country.” 

So maybe that’s why the information about the Damavand site got leaked today.

Under Code 3.1 of the subsidiary arrangements to Iran’s safeguards agreement, which the IAEA says is in force, Iran must notify the IAEA of a nuclear facility at the time that it decides to construct it. It would be difficult for the IAEA to independently establish when Iran would have decided to build any specific installation. In practical terms Iran might therefore take advantage of the situation to build as many underground tunnels as it wants without providing the IAEA any information about their intended purpose. Were Iran however to introduce specific equipment or material into such a site, betraying a nuclear purpose–and were that action to be exposed–then Iran would have a serious international public relations problem on its hands.

Unless of course Iran declared its intention to construct a nuclear facility there first. The leak of information to PMOI may mean that, if Iran had ever contemplated Damavand hosting a nuclear installation, that option is now foreclosed.

This article was originally published in Arms Control Wonk.