The Iranians have been watching too many James Bond movies. If you want to hide a secret uranium enrichment plant, you should bury it under some existing structure in the heart of the city. Hollowing out a mountain just attracts the attention of every intelligence service in the world. They start watching as soon as the first approach road shows up on the satellite photographs.
Western intelligence agencies have known about Iran's second uranium enrichment plant, hidden in the mountains west of Qom, since construction began in 2006. Amazingly, it took until now for Iran's spooks to realize that and warn Tehran to come clean. On Monday, the Iranian government delivered a letter to the International Atomic Energy Agency admitting that the plant existed.
Hiding things always causes suspicion. "The revelation of this second nuclear enrichment site ... proves beyond any doubt that (Iran) wants to equip itself with nuclear weapons," said Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. The Qom discovery also brought Russian President Dmitry Medvedev around to the view that, "in some cases, sanctions are inevitable."
The United States, Britain, France and Germany were already convinced that Iran is working on nuclear weapons, and Russia makes five. Out of the six countries that are negotiating with Iran (the five permanent members of the Security Council plus Germany), only China is still holding out, but it is starting to waver. Next Thursday's meeting between Iran and the Six may not be followed immediately by sanctions, but they are coming soon.
Yet it is still not clear that Iran is actually seeking nuclear weapons. The religious leadership regularly declares that they are "un-Islamic," and presumably takes its own decrees seriously. On the other hand, the country has been facing the threat of attack by the United States or Israel, using conventional or even nuclear weapons, for decades. So it's hardly surprising that the Iranians decided on a back-up site for uranium enrichment in case their main enrichment plant at Natanz were destroyed. However, the site near Qom is much smaller and could not supply the large quantities of slightly enriched uranium that a nuclear power station requires. What it could do is supply the small quantities of highly enriched uranium that a nuclear weapon requires.
Many people therefore think that the Iranians meant to keep the Qom facility secret permanently, enriching uranium for nuclear weapons there while everybody monitored their innocent activities at Natanz. Others, including myself, think that the secondary site near Qom is meant to give Iran the option of going flat-out for nuclear weapons if the United States or Israel attacks and destroys the main enrichment site at Natanz.
Both of these possible rationales were pretty stupid, since there was really no way that the Qom site could stay secret. But it does matter which of those motives underlay the Qom site: Was it to build secret nuclear weapons as soon as possible, or to have the ability to build nuclear weapons if attacked?
The probable answer, given the regime's theological objections to nuclear weapons, is that it genuinely wants an independent source of fuel for its civil nuclear power program, since it has repeatedly been targeted by embargoes and sanctions in the past -- and it also wants the ability to produce nuclear weapons within six to 12 months if it is attacked.
A number of other countries have sought and attained such a "threshold capability" over the years, and it is perfectly legal. Maybe it shouldn't be legal, but under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, it is.
The current crisis is occurring because some countries believe that Iran intends to go beyond that legal threshold and actually make nuclear weapons now. They are the same countries that mistakenly thought Iraq had nuclear weapons and invaded it in 2003. They may be wrong this time, too.
Some governments will argue that Iran has already crossed that legal threshold by keeping the Qom site secret from the IAEA. Under the normal NPT rules, it would only have to declare the site six months before it actually starts processing uranium there, but in 2003 Iran voluntarily signed the so-called Subsidiary Arrangement, under which it promised to inform the IAEA of new nuclear facilities in the design stage.
It subsequently repudiated that extra obligation, but the IAEA says it cannot do so unilaterally. So maybe Iran has now broken the law, or maybe it hasn't. But sanctions are now almost certain, and the odds on this ending in U.S. or Israeli military strikes on Iran just got a lot shorter.