Iran has admitted that it has at least one (and there is no reason to believe that there are not more) secret enrichment facilities. More information will undoubtedly come out in the coming days but we can deal now with the most important issue: how to proceed from here. As President Obama has rightly said today, this is not the first time Iran has hidden nuclear facilities it should rightly declare to the IAEA.
Iran will undoubtedly claim that it has not introduced nuclear material into the centrifuges and therefore did not have the obligation to report it. In fact, when I was in Israel earlier this summer, everyone I spoke to was convinced that such a facility existed but that Iran had not introduced uranium into it. However, there is a lot that can be done to train personnel etc. with enriching other isotopes like xenon or silicon. And training personnel is the important aspect right now. When the history of these secret facilities is known, I suspect that we will discover that they were started during the enrichment “suspension” that ended in 2006. We will also discover, I firmly believe, that the Natanz facility has been used as a training center for workers for those covert facilities. That could explain why there has been a relatively slow start: they were constantly cycling new trainees through with the consequent inefficiencies new workers always introduce.
Now is the Time for a Multinational Enrichment Center
Now that we know about at least this one covert facility, it is the time to reach a deal with Iran about placing a multinational enrichment facility on Iranian soil. This may seem paradoxical, but such a facility is the best way of ensuring that Iran cannot set up other secret enrichment facilities later. We obviously now know that “suspension” is not the answer; they can use the freedom such inactivity gives their workers to setup new plants outside the prying IAEA inspectors’ view. We need to be with the Iranian scientists and engineers 24 hours a day, seven days a week to understand what they are doing. Of course, the first step will be to require lists of workers at both the covert and overt enrichment plants as well as enough supporting documentation (shift schedules, pay stubs, payroll accounts come immediately to mind) to instill confidence in the West that we know everyone who has worked there. Of course, while we are checking those documents, Westerners can be working in the plants; keeping an eye on those already there. They could start that tomorrow.
This revelation of a covert facility might be just the bargaining chip the West needs to force the measures necessary to build up confidence Iran is not establishing other secret plants. We need assurances about the people who Iran needs to establish a new plant. That level of confidence can only be achieved by the most intrusive inspections imaginable: working side-by-side with the Iranian scientists and engineers involved in enrichment. Under an agreement for a multinational enrichment center, Westerns would start working in the existing Iranian facilities the day after an agreement is signed. Of course, it is vital that we not give Iran any more time to establish other covert plants while we are not watching their people. It is time to realize that a multinational enrichment facility is the best way to prevent Iran from getting a bomb and, in fact, to roll back their indigenous enrichment capabilities.